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Chemistry & Materials - An overview of NSF research
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Photo, caption follows:

A microfluidics-based lab laboratory on a chip is being tested under a fluorescence microscope for the detection of biological samples.
Credit: Melvin Khoo, Sam Lu, Chang Liu, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

Creating New Kinds of Materials
From the Ages of Stone, Bronze and Iron, to the advent of steel, plastics and semiconductors, the history of civilization has often been written in our increasingly sophisticated mastery of new substances and compounds.

The 20th century witnessed an explosion in the development of synthetic materials, as well as the creation of new combinations of materials to achieve desired physical effects. Now chemists, physicists and engineers are poised to produce a whole new generation of novel materials with specifically tailored properties, some of which would have seemed like science fiction only a few years ago. NSF supports a wide variety of programs in that ongoing effort.

One of the most exciting is the race to devise superconducting materials -- those with no resistance to electrical current -- that can operate at ever-higher temperatures. Existing superconductors must be cooled by liquid nitrogen or liquid helium, making them impractical for large-scale operations. Superconductors that operate at or near room temperature could transform global use of electrical power.

At the same time, numerous investigators are trying to find more efficient and inexpensive materials for photovoltaic devices that convert the energy of sunlight to electricity. Substantial advances in this area could drastically reduce humanity’s demand for fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Materials researchers are also intensely interested in ways to control the optical properties of different substances. Some are working on light-emitting diodes (LEDs, best known as the glowing red or green lights on electronic appliances) that could produce white light for general illumination. Others are engineering new kinds of liquid crystals -- akin to those used in laptop computer screens -- that can work in a host of applications, from windows with variable, user-controlled transparency to tiny sensors that change color with temperature. Still others are devising new ways to control the passage of light signals through fiber-optic cables and switches in order to speed and improve communication.

In medicine and physiology, potential uses for new materials are nearly endless, including substances that can serve as synthetic frameworks for bone growth, forms of artificial skin and joints, implantable drug-delivery systems, "bio-compatible" materials that do not trigger immune-system rejection and engineered materials that can carry out the function of organs.

That field benefits from parallel research into "smart" materials that are designed to react to changes in their environment. Some can sense motion and counter it, thus damping vibration. Others change shape or viscosity in response to stress, temperature or electrical activity, but "remember" their original configurations. Many smart materials will be employed in creating the coming generation of compact, low-power sensors that can detect toxic chemicals, bio-hazards or radiation, as well as dozens of other stimuli.

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