Students gathering around sample container

Center for materials of the future awarded $18M six-year funding

July 28, 2020 2:10 p.m.

The Princeton Center for Complex Materials (PCCM) has been selected by the National Science Foundation to expand its groundbreaking research in two areas, quantum technologies and biology-inspired materials. Each summer, PCCM hosts the Princeton University Materials Academy (PUMA), a materials science and engineering program for high school students from underrepresented backgrounds. Pictured: Sujit Datta, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, shows high school students visiting campus in 2019 samples of novel materials his lab is investigating for uses such as environmental cleanup and drug delivery. 

The Princeton Center for Complex Materials, a research center at Princeton University dedicated to discovering the materials of the future and training a globally competitive and diverse workforce, has been selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to expand its groundbreaking interdisciplinary mission into two new areas: quantum technologies and biology-inspired materials.

The new award provides $18M over the next six years to accelerate exploration of materials that will drive future progress in everything from future consumer electronics to space exploration. The center is one of the nation’s select few NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs), which support transdisciplinary and foundational materials research while educating the next generation of innovators.  

“We are excited to expand Princeton’s research profile in quantum materials, an area in which Princeton has a rich history and deep well of expertise, and biology-inspired materials, where we have leading experts at the nexus of biology, physics and engineering,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, and a professor of chemical and biological engineering. “Furthermore, this support from the National Science Foundation expands Princeton’s ability to educate students and early-career scientists of diverse backgrounds in these vibrant research areas.”

PCCM director Ali Yazdani, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics, said the two new research areas provide important forward momentum on two NSF priority “Big Ideas” that focus on the nation’s technological competitiveness, the Quantum Leap and Understanding the Rules of Life.

“With National Science Foundation support, Princeton researchers are opening up the frontiers of knowledge and discovering new materials and their properties,” Yazdani said. “Quantum materials and biology-inspired engineering hold the keys to innovations that have the power to transform lives and benefit humanity.”

The development of new quantum materials will galvanize new methods in computing and communications, helping to ensure future national security, industrial competitiveness and workforce development. Discoveries in bioengineering will lead to new fundamental discoveries about the principles that underpin life itself, while developing capabilities in biotechnology that will lead to eventual therapeutics involving polymers, gels, colloids, biofilms and other soft materials.

The funding enables PCCM to continue its outreach and educational missions to cultivate an inclusive and diverse highly skilled workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). PCCM creates and conducts K-12 and undergraduate educational and outreach programs, many of which attract and engage underrepresented minorities, women and persons with disabilities to discover materials science and share the excitement of their research with the broader community.

PCCM’s education outreach events annually reach some 1,000 K-12 students. A cornerstone of the center’s K-12 programs is the Princeton University Materials Academy (PUMA), a three-week summer program for high school students from underrepresented minorities that is implemented in partnership with Trenton Central High School and Upward Bound. Since 2002, PCCM has hosted approximately 300 PUMA students, providing a materials science educational experience via laboratory and project-based activities, supported by lectures and informal interactions with PCCM faculty and graduate students.

For undergraduate students, PCCM annually hosts a large Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer program. This nine-week program offers approximately 22 students (all from outside Princeton) with mentored research experiences, faculty research seminars, tours of core facilities and local companies, and team-building social activities. Since 1998, PCCM’s REU program has hosted around 400 students, about 90% of whom went on to graduate school. With Partnership for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) partner, California State University Northridge (CSUN), PCCM has increased the percentage of URM participants in this program and is planning to expand the successful REU program to include students with disabilities.

Research at the intersection of various fields of science and engineering is a center point of the center, which was established in 1994 and includes over 30 faculty from six departments in the natural sciences and engineering. The two new research themes — quantum materials and bioengineering — will each bring together faculty from three or more departments into teams to tackle society’s greatest challenges.

The center’s explorations include methods for synthesizing new materials, state-of-the-art approaches to characterizing material properties, theoretical advances, computer modeling and simulation, and machine learning methods for predicting behaviors of new materials.

Beyond the Princeton campus, PCCM also has key collaborations with domestic and international institutions that enhance the ability for scientists to exchange information and build on their research findings, and create new opportunities for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and other early-career scientists and engineers.

As one of the NSF’s roughly 25 MRSECs, PCCM belongs to a national network of university-based centers in materials research, education and facilities. The MRSECs support materials research infrastructure, promote collaboration between universities, facilitates interactions with industry and international organizations, and form the basis of economic growth through workforce development and the generation of the technologies of the future.

PCCM is supported through National Science Foundation grant NSF-DMR-2011750.