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February 16, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Physicists Awarded $520,000 for Collaborative Materials Research

Distinguished Professor of Physics David Drabold

Ohio University Distinguished Professor of Physics David Drabold

By Jean Andrews
Physics & Astronomy

Dr. David Drabold, Ohio University Distinguished Professor of Physics & Astronomy, and two researchers with ties to OHIO have been awarded a three-year $520,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study and develop new approaches for jointly using experimental and theoretical information for developing models of complex materials.

Drabold is partnering with OHIO alum Dr. Raymond Atta-Fynn ’05 Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, and Dr. Parthapratim Biswas, Associate Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and a 2003-06 OHIO post-doctoral researcher in the department. Biswas is the grant’s principal investigator and was an OHIO Robert & René Glidden Visiting Professor during 2014-15. Dr. Stephen Elliott, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, will provide expertise on experiments and modeling of phase change materials.

“Our grant will make it possible to devise unique methods to better link academic materials physics with industrial materials,” explains Drabold. “It is an ideal example of the focus of the U.S. government’s Materials Genome Initiative,” a multi-agency initiative designed to create a new era of policy, resources, and infrastructure that support U.S. institutions in the effort to discover, manufacture, and deploy advanced materials twice as fast, at a fraction of the cost.”

Dr. Parthapratim Biswas

Dr. Parthapratim Biswas


Dr. Raymond Atta-Fynn

Dr. Raymond Atta-Fynn


Physics Theory, Computers and Math—Powerful Together

The team’s project will focus on computational and theoretical research and education on novel complex materials for which the arrangement of atoms cannot be described by regular spatially periodic patterns typical of a crystalline material, such as any glasses or amorphous materials. These non-crystalline materials have complicated atomic-scale structures and are part of everyday life. They are important for the development of new devices, corrosion-resistant coatings, artificial bone, and other advanced materials.

“We have found a way to figure out the structure of materials—atom by atom—and make sure they agree with experiments from the lab and theory. We can use our method to design materials that will have properties we need—for better solar cells, computer memories and more. We are trying to develop a new tool that we hope will be used by many researchers,” Drabold says.

The current way scientists develop a model amorphous materials is by starting with a very disordered liquid state and simulating “cooling” it in a simulation on the computer, crudely mimicking the way a glass is formed. This scheme produces results that often fall short qualitatively and rarely gets fine details correctly.​

​In contrast, Drabold’s team will use all information available about an existing material—whether from experiments​ or a proposed material with desired technological properties, as a fundamental part of the new modeling to “guide” the computer simulation to the correct structure agreeing with all that we know, or seek.

“It means that we have a new tool to really understand in a microscopic, atomistic way the structure of complex materials from semiconductors to metallic glasses or computer memory materials,” notes Drabold. “For example, if we want to investigate the process of metallization in conducting bridge memory cells, we could use known data as a constraint. That is, we would be able to meaningfully attack a design problem using what we know as a starting point; a key step towards designing better and more desirable electronic or optical properties.”

Bringing advanced materials to the market is a process that can take 20 years or more. At the heart of this project is an effort to provide better modeling for development of advanced materials in existing and emerging industrial sectors in the United States.

Outreach in Underserved Areas in Southern Mississippi

The grant includes funding for a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics outreach program focused on the southern Mississippi region. It involves the participation of minority and disadvantaged students at the high school and college levels in workshops, as well as the development of a tutorial program for gifted undergraduates at the University of Southern Mississippi (Southern Miss). A trial curriculum within the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Southern Miss will be fashioned similar to OHIO’s Honors Tutorial College. The researchers aim to create a broader collaborative program of study in the area of materials computation in the southern Mississippi region that builds on the strengths of participating universities.

Drabold points to a long tradition of international collaboration at OHIO and especially in the department. “I’m very pleased that this award has deep roots at OHIO. Atta-Fynn was a student here; Biswas a postdoc and visiting scholar (and Atta-Fynn worked closely with Partha and me in his student years). The proposal was a direct outgrown of Biswas’s visits to OHIO and it’s a brilliant illustration of the need for scientific exchange with colleagues from around the world.”

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