New lab opens doors to materials science
November 17, 2020
In a new lab in Kelly Hall, a collection of advanced instruments available to researchers and students all over campus will fuel new discoveries in materials science and the many fields that intersect it.
The Materials Characterization Lab (MCL), which officially opened in the spring, is a joint initiative by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) and the Macromolecules Innovation Institute (MII). The lab gives researchers access to sophisticated instrumentation that might not be practical for a single faculty member or department to purchase independently.
The lab’s completion is one step in a multiyear effort by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation to establish high-performance shared research facilities in three key areas: materials characterization, micro- and nanofabrication, and the life sciences. Amanda Morris, an associate professor of chemistry and an affiliated faculty member of MII, led the materials-characterization component of the project and spearheaded the planning of the facility that became the MCL.
Providing centralized access to a curated collection of related instrumentation accomplishes several objectives. It allows faculty members already working in a particular discipline to expand the scope of their research without extending their budgets. It also lowers barriers for people in adjacent fields to explore new techniques, encouraging transdisciplinary innovation and collaboration.
Supporting interdisciplinary research spaces is one of the primary ways the ICTAS advances research on campus. The institute has helped launch unique facilities for nanotechnology, drone research, and biomedical engineering, among others. MII had its own experience with shared facilities: the group had previously established a Macromolecular Materials Discovery Center, which focused on research in polymer science and engineering, in another ICTAS building. The new lab combines the efforts of both institutes.
“Shared research facilities multiply the impact of investments in space and technology and incidentally foster collaboration and encourage the exchange of ideas,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS’ director. “We’ve seen that effect already, in the way facilities like the NCFL and the Drone Park make it easy for people in a wide variety of fields to take advantage of the incredible resources and expertise Virginia Tech has to offer. We were pleased to work with OVPRI and the Macromolecules Innovation Institute to create a space that will accelerate materials science.”
The lab, located in 420 Kelly Hall, includes more than two dozen instruments for sample preparation and analysis that allow researchers to characterize a material’s surface properties, internal chemical and physical structures, electrochemical performance, thermal behavior, and a wide range of other features. To make the facility even more accessible for new users, the lab’s manager, Rituraj Borgohain, provides training and assistance.
The project was a natural fit for the Macromolecules Innovation Institute, whose mission is to foster an interdisciplinary understanding of the macromolecular sciences.
“As materials science has evolved, it has expanded to include a wider and wider range of disciplines,” said Robert Moore, a professor of chemistry in the College of Science and the director of MII. “Specifically, Virginia Tech’s polymer science and engineering programs have been exceptional for decades. A facility like this, which makes top-tier instrumentation available to researchers all over campus, will nurture an even greater degree of innovation, foster industrial interactions, and further elevate multiple areas of research.”
The lab is also a valuable resource for students.
Abby Whittington, an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, and Michael Schulz, an assistant professor of chemistry, teach a polymer science course called Macromolecular Fundamentals. The lab course introduces students to techniques for characterizing polymeric materials and helps them understand how molecular structures influence physical properties.
“This unique space offers characterization equipment that takes the student from synthesis to end use testing all in one location,” explained Whittington, an associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering who directs the interdisciplinary Macromolecular Science and Engineering graduate program the course fits within.
Tiffany Thompson, the doctoral student teaching the lab portion of the course, sees the MCL as an asset, too. “The facility makes it possible to expand the scope of techniques and instrumentation that students can experience, thereby developing skill sets to better prepare them for interdisciplinary work,” she said. And the lab’s large footprint allows a hands-on lab course to proceed with plenty of physical distance.
The MCL is also a resource for industry, government, and nonprofit partners. Having a central location for advanced instrumentation, testing, modeling, and computation will be a catalyst for collaboration externally just as it is for Virginia Tech faculty.
“The MCL is an engine for economic growth and a portal that allows the private sector, faculty, and students the capacity to explore joint interests at the intersection of science, engineering, and entrepreneurship,” Whittington said.