JHU will grow crystals as part of national bid to develop better materials for technology

Hopkins, 3 other schools part of NSF-funded materials science project

Johns Hopkins University is establishing a cutting-edge crystal growth facility as part of a national research project meant to revolutionize technology used in consumer products, industry, and medicine, the National Science Foundation announced today.

Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Princeton, and Clark Atlanta universities form a team of institutions that the agency chose for a $25 million program over five years. The new effort, dubbed PARADIM—Platform for the Accelerated Realization, Analysis and Discovery of Interface Materials—is one of the first awards under the NSF's new Materials Innovation Platform program. The facility will join the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute, the Institute for Quantum Matter, and the Institute for Nanobiotechnology in bolstering Johns Hopkins' status as a national leader in materials research.

"Materials science is the basis for so much of what we have accomplished technologically—computers, superconductors, advances in medical imaging, and even our space program," said facility director Tyrel M. McQueen, associate professor in the Johns Hopkins departments of Chemistry, Materials Science and Engineering, and Physics and Astronomy. "Future technologies will also depend on making new materials with new properties—we need better materials for catalysts and batteries, for example, and better materials for medical implants."

As part of PARADIM, Johns Hopkins will receive $4.8 million to establish a bulk crystal growth facility. Scientists will develop their capacity to discover new materials and coax them into growing as large crystals suitable for fundamental studies and technological applications.

Johns Hopkins will work closely with the other three universities. Cornell will develop programs in thin film crystalline materials—currently used, for example, in semiconductors and many electronic materials. Clark Atlanta will focus on the theoretical aspects of the research, and Princeton will direct overall project research.

The PARADIM project stems from a report issued in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences. The report found that while research laboratories at large U.S. corporations once led the way in advanced materials development, in the past few decades several factors caused these capabilities to shrink to "near disappearance." In 2015, the NSF called on research institutions for proposals to pick up the pace of research and development of new materials.

Linda Sapochak, acting director of NSF's Materials Research Division, called the Johns Hopkins team "an essential partner in the 'platform,' providing critically needed expertise and access to single crystal growth in the U.S." By working with the project partners, she said, Johns Hopkins is "poised to make major advances in this area."

A key part of the Johns Hopkins crystal growth center will be a new piece of laboratory equipment now being custom built in Germany. Called an optical floating zone furnace, the contraption—a bit larger than a household refrigerator—will be the first of its kind in the United States, allowing scientists to make materials that have never been made before. The machine will allow researchers to put materials under enormous pressure—up to 300 times normal atmospheric pressure and 30 times the pressure possible at furnaces now in use at Johns Hopkins. Crystals will be grown in the presence of gases that have liquid properties, known as supercritical fluids.

A second furnace is to be equipped with an X-ray computed tomography, or CT, scanner, which will allow researchers to watch crystals as they grow.

McQueen said the new instrumentation will sharply cut down on the trial and error usually involved in crystal growth, vastly improving production speed. Now, he said, it takes one to three days to grow a pinky-sized crystal "if you know how to do it. ... If you don't know how to do it, months."

A key component of the PARADIM program is education and collaboration. The laboratories will be open to researchers from universities around the country, who will be taught the techniques developed there. A summer school program for graduate students is already reaching capacity, though the program is still in its infancy.

"Part of what this platform will do is to become a resource for scientists at all universities, not just Hopkins," McQueen said.