Event lifts curtain on a bright future for materials research

January 6, 2023

By Jamie Oberdick

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News. It features Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Evan Pugh University Professor and Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and of Electrical Engineering; Daniel Lopez, Liang Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering; Dan Hayes, department head and professor of biomedical engineering; and Juan Pablo Gevaudan, assistant professor of architectural engineering.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — You are reading this because of materials.

Whether you are perusing this article on an electronic device driven by a semiconductor chip or via a paper printout, the ability to read these words is in large part due to innovative materials research that led to a product in use in society. And the future holds more innovation in materials research, including at Penn State. The 2022 Materials Day event, presented by the Materials Research Institute (MRI) with the theme “Materials Impacting Society,” featured a look at what might be on the horizon for materials research with positive societal impact.  

The event was held in October 2022 on the Penn State University Park campus and was attended by more than 300 materials researchers from Penn State, industry and government. The event featured keynote speakers, breakout sessions, the presentation of the 2022 Rustum and Della Roy Innovation in Materials Research Awards and networking.

“Every aspect of modern civilization has relied upon having the appropriate materials available to enable those advances,” said John Mauro, Dorothy Pate Enright Professor and associate head for graduate education in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, who gave a keynote address focused on the United Nation’s International Year of Glass and trends in glass research. “Materials science and technology are key in addressing global challenges in energy, the environment, information technology, healthcare, transportation, sustainability and more.” 

Another point of discussion for Materials Day was the CHIPS and Science Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in early August.

Daniel Lopez, director of MRI’s Nanofabrication Laboratory and Liang Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and James Alexander Liddle, scientific director of the Microsystems and Nanotechnology Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, led a special session on the CHIPS and Science Act. Among the points discussed during this special session were the government’s vision for America’s semiconductor future, academia’s role in semiconductor industry development, what a regional mid-Atlantic hub that includes Penn State might look like and leveraging Penn State resources such as the Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization for workforce development.  

Materials Day also showcased materials research beyond semiconductors. Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Evan Pugh University Professor and Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and of Electrical Engineering, was part of the panel for the breakout session “Wearables and Implantables for Health,” presented by MRI and the Social Science Research Institute.

“Beneficial materials research happens in so many ways that it is hard to narrow it down to a few examples,” Trolier-McKinstry said. “Materials research creates devices that lower the energy burdens with computation or cooling, improve health and enable communications. The breakout session on wearables and implantables for health care pointed to opportunities to create sensors and systems that can enable healthy aging in place.”

Another breakout session, “Materials and Processes Challenges and Opportunities in the Transformation of Carbon and Hydrogen Economies,” was presented by MRI and Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

“In that session, discussions centered on how materials can be designed to reduce or even sequester carbon emissions,” said Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems. “For example, some of the panelists, including Juan Pablo Gevaudan, assistant professor of architectural engineering, shared some of their research in low CO2 cementitious materials for the built environment.” 

At his keynote, Mauro discussed how his research could potentially reduce carbon emissions in other common materials, by helping glass manufacturers lower their carbon footprint. 

“In our group, we are developing a next-generation glass composition that will dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the glass industry, while at the same time improving the performance of everyday glass products,” Mauro said. 

Some of the most far-reaching materials research, so much so it seems almost science fiction, was presented in the “Regenerative Medicine and Engineering” session, presented by MRI and Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. Instead of using prosthetics and transplants, this session discussed the possibility of generating new body parts when old ones fail. This was also the subject of a keynote address at Materials Day by Dan Hayes, professor of biomedical engineering and head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.   

“The regenerative medicine keynote talk by Dan Hayes and the related breakout session were really inspiring to me,” Ounaies said. “The potential to ‘grow’ and manufacture skin or other organs and harness the body’s healing abilities to address significant health issues, particularly for those harmed by fire or affected by severe disease, is extremely impactful. And the fact that the field brings together materials scientists, biologists, clinicians and engineers to make possible these discoveries is really exciting.” 

Given that MRI is an interdisciplinary entity, events such as Materials Day are important not only to raise awareness of the future for materials research through keynotes, breakout sessions and graduate student poster sessions, but also to spark collaborations necessary to bring innovative ideas to fruition, according to Ounaies. 

“Materials Day is a unique opportunity to meet other materials researchers at Penn State, to network, to have students learn about emerging research that they might not otherwise know about,” Ounaies said. “In fact, graduate students in my research group ended up reaching out to colleagues they met at Materials Day to explore possible collaborations and to learn about their approaches.” 


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“Beneficial materials research happens in so many ways that it is hard to narrow it down to a few examples.”

— Susan Trolier-McKinstry