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News Release 05-136

NSF Announces Three New Chemical Bonding Centers

Thinking outside the box, teams will tackle "big" problems in chemistry

A DNA Walker

The type of DNA-based walker to be explored at the new CBC Center for Molecular Cybenetics.

August 11, 2005

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced that it will fund a new group of Chemical Bonding Centers (CBC)--multi-faceted research teams each intended to tackle a "big problem" in chemistry, in an atmosphere that's flexible, tolerant of risk and open to thinking far outside the box.

The three new centers will be based at the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University and the University of California at Irvine. Respectively, they hope to find new and more economical ways of storing solar energy; to create new kinds of nanoscale molecular machines for drug delivery and other applications; and to illuminate the inner workings of molecules.

The aim of the awards, notes Philip B. Shevlin, one of the NSF program officers who manages the CBC program, is "to encourage very talented people to attack major problems that would engage the public and have a long-term societal benefit--and be something they are not already doing."

A first set of CBC awards was issued in Aug. 2004.

Because problems of this type will almost always require many investigators and many kinds of expertise, adds Shevlin, he and his colleagues also looked for a new level of agility and flexibility in the centers' organization. "So if the research leads off in unexpected directions," he says, "the groups should be able to change personnel as needed, and bring in new kinds of expertise."

CBC award are funded through NSF's Division of Chemistry. Each award provides $1.5 million to the center over a 3-year period. At the end of that time, those centers showing high potential will be eligible to continue their work with a Phase II award, which will provide $2 million to $3 million per year for up to 5 years. These awards are also potentially renewable for an additional 5 years.


The Three New Chemical Bonding Centers

Storing Sunlight. Caltech chemist Harry B. Gray and his colleagues from Caltech and MIT will pursue efficient, economical ways to store solar energy in the form of chemical bonds--an advance that is critical for using sunlight as a renewable source of fuel and chemical feedstocks. The researchers will focus on getting sunlight to split water into its higher energy building blocks, hydrogen and oxygen. They will also work to raise public awareness about the importance of renewable energy, and the scientific challenges required to address it.

Molecular Machines. The new CBC Center for Molecular Cybernetics, headed by Columbia University's Milan N. Stojanovic, will have eight principal investigators from seven institutions: Columbia; Boston University; Caltech; the Universities of Michigan, Chicago, and New Mexico; and the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. The center's goal will be to produce synthetic molecular machines powered by chemical bond transformation. To achieve this, the researchers will synthesize chemical structures having two or more protruding appendages of DNA, each able to grab onto or let go of a surface in response to an external stimulus. This should allow the structure to move across the surface like a molecular "spider." If successful, the construction of such autonomously moving molecules would generate considerable scientific and public interest, and could lead to applications in areas such as drug delivery and nanopatterning.

The Inner Workings of Molecules. This is the goal of UC Irvine chemist Shaul Mukamel, who will head a team of researchers from Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. Using both theory and experiment, they will probe the real-time inner workings of molecules at single-atom resolution, with the goal of illuminating elementary chemical events such as the gain and loss of an electron from a single molecule; the making and breaking of chemical bonds; and the transport of charge among molecules. Ultimately, these investigations should lead to real-space, real-time pictures of chemical processes at the most fundamental level--in effect, time-lapse sequences of chemical events as they occur. This capability would not only give scientists a whole new perspective into molecular events, but would yield dramatic visualizations particularly well suited for dissemination to the public at large.

Media Contacts
M. Mitchell Waldrop, NSF, (703) 292-7752, email:

Program Contacts
Philip B. Shevlin, NSF, (703) 292-4966, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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