Dr. Bedrov and SMRC discover new liquid phase

Research activities in the MRSEC Soft Materials Research Center (SMRC) that includes molecular simulation group of Prof. Bedrov have discovered an elusive phase of matter, first proposed more than 100 years ago and sought after ever since. The “ferroelectric nematic” phase of liquid crystal has been described in recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS 2020 117, 14021-14031; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2002290117). The discovery opens a door to a new universe of materials.

Nematic liquid crystals have been a hot topic in materials research since the 1970s. These materials exhibit a curious mix of fluid- and solid-like behaviors, which allow them to control light and have been extensively used in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) in many laptops, TVs and cellphones. The nematic liquid crystals like dropping a handful of pins on a table. The pins in this case are rod-shaped molecules that are “polar”—with heads that carry, say, a positive charge and tails that are negatively charged. In a traditional nematic liquid crystal, half of the pins point up and the other half point down, with the direction chosen at random. A ferroelectric nematic liquid crystal phase, however, patches or “domains” form in the sample in which the molecules all point in the same direction, either up or down, and therefore creating a material with polar ordering.

Debye and Born first suggested in the 1910s that, if you designed a liquid crystal correctly, its molecules could spontaneously fall into a polar ordered state. In the decades since, however, scientists struggled to find a liquid crystal phase that behaved in the same way. That is, until MRSEC researchers began examining RM734, an organic molecule created by a group of British scientists several years ago. That same British group, plus a second team of Slovenian scientists, reported that RM734 exhibited a conventional nematic liquid crystal phase at higher temperatures. At lower temperatures, another unusual phase appeared. When the MRSEC team tried to observe that strange phase under the microscope they noticed something new. Under a weak electric field, this phase of RM734 was 100 to 1,000 times more responsive to electric fields than the usual nematic liquid crystals and the molecules are nearly all pointing in the same direction.

However, experimentally it is hard to zoom down to molecular scale and understand why and how these RM734 molecules were achieving such collective behavior. This is where atomistic molecular dynamics simulations conducted by Dengpan Dong and Xiaoyu Wei from Prof. Bedrov group allowed to gain atomic scale understanding. First, the simulations were able to confirm that aligning all RM734 molecules in the same direction is energetically more favorable than to have conventional random alignment of molecular dipoles. Second, detail analysis of structural and orientational correlations obtained from simulations identified key groups and intermolecular interactions that stabilize the ferroelectric nematic phase. Using these tools Bedrov’s group currently explores other chemical structures that can lead to a similar behavior.

Discovery of this new liquid crystal material starts a new chapter in condensed-matter physics and could open up a wealth of technological innovations—from new types of display screens to reimagined computer memory. Within couple days of publication, the manuscript got a world-wide attention and was picked up by more than 25 news outlets around the world.


The National Academy of Inventors has released a new video about the legacy of Gerald Stringfellow, University of Utah Distinguished Professor of both electrical and computer engineering and materials science and engineering.

The new video, “From Campus to Commerce,” profiles Stringfellow’s contributions to the development of light-emitting diodes, a technology that would benefit everything that uses LEDs from traffic lights to computer monitors.

Stringfellow developed a process called organometallic vapor-phase epitaxy for the growth of new semiconductor alloys in which aluminum, gallium, indium and phosphorous are deposited on a substrate to create red, orange, yellow and green LED crystals. This led to better handheld calculators that used red LEDs for the display. Stringfellow took his research to the University of Utah where he was hired as a professor in 1980. He made major conceptual advances in the field and would later publish a book on the process that has now become the bible for the science of growing LED crystals.


Two MSE Students Receive Prestigious DOE Graduate Fellowships

The Department of Materials Science & Engineering is proud to announce that two of its graduate students, Jarom Chamberlain and Matt Newton, have been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to receive prestigious three year Nuclear Energy University Program (NEUP) fellowships in the amount of $161,000 each. Both students are in Prof. Michael Simpson’s group, working towards graduate degrees in metallurgical engineering. They both earned B.S. degrees in metallurgical engineering from the University of Utah.

Only 34 NEUP graduate fellowships were awarded this year for the entire country, so it is a remarkable testament of the quality of our students, department, and research that two awards were made to students at the University of Utah. Jarom and Matt will continue their work studying molten salt based processes in support of advanced nuclear energy in Prof. Simpson’s lab.

Since 2009, DOE has awarded close to 800 scholarships and fellowships totaling approximately $44 million to students pursuing nuclear energy-related degrees. Ninety-three percent of students who have completed nuclear energy-related fellowships have either continued to advance their education in nuclear energy or have obtained careers at DOE’s national laboratories, other government agencies, academic institutions, or private companies. Nine former fellowship winners are now university professors engaged in nuclear energy-related research, and one was competitively awarded an Office of Nuclear Energy research and development award in FY 2019.

Find additional information about DOE’s nuclear energy scholarships and fellowships awarded at: https://neup.inl.gov/SitePages/FY19_SF_Recipients.aspx



Discover the materials of the future … in 30 seconds or less

Since the dawn of history, the materials available to man have defined the very substance of society. The Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age and eventually to the Iron and Steel Ages. We now enter the Information Age where technologists must balance a dynamic harmony between traditional approaches and transformational new tools. In this fascinating talk, Dr. Taylor Sparks will explain how he is working to reduce the trial and error of new materials discovery.

Dr. Taylor Sparks is an Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Utah. He is originally from Utah and an alumni of the department he now teaches in. He did his MS in Materials at UCSB and his PhD in Applied Physics at Harvard University and then did a postdoc in the Materials Research Laboratory at UCSB. He is currently the Director of the Materials Characterization Lab at the University of Utah and teaches classes on ceramics, materials science, characterization, and technology commercialization.

His current research centers on the discovery, synthesis, characterization, and properties of new materials for energy applications. He is a pioneer in the emerging field of materials informatics whereby big data, data mining, and machine learning are leveraged to solve challenges in materials science. When he’s not in the lab you can find him running his podcast “Materialism” or canyoneering with his 3 kids in southern Utah. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

Ebrahiminia awarded second place at the Lithium Ion Batteries Symposium

The 236th Electrochemical Society meeting was held in Atlanta during the week of October 13-17, 2019. Mahsa Ebrahiminia, an MSE Ph.D. student from Dr. Dmitry Bedrov group, presented her latest work on transport and mechanical properties of model solid electrolyte interphases (SEI) that she studied using atomistic molecular dynamics simulations and was awarded the second place at the Lithium Ion Batteries Symposium.

SEI is one of the key components in the Li-ion batteries that, on the one hand, protects electrolytes from electrochemical decomposition and suppresses the growth of Li dendrites, but on the other hand, creates additional resistance for Li-ion transport between electrodes. Mahsa’s simulations provide a molecular scale insight into mechanisms of Li-ion transport and structure-property relationships that hard to obtain from experiments but are badly needed in order to design new materials for next generation of batteries.

Congratulations Mahsa!

Sara J. Wilson recognized for contributions to department and university

SALT LAKE CITY — Sara J. Wilson, Administrative Manager for the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, was recognized for her excellence in contributions to the department and university with a 2019 Academic and Student Affairs District Staff Excellence Award. She received this award in a ceremony held on Wednesday, August 21st at the Thomas S. Monson Center.

Sara has served as the Administrative Manager for the Department of Metallurgical Engineering since 2014 and has taken the role of Administrative Manager over the Materials Science & Engineering graduate program effective this July. Sara has been an invaluable member of the departments, working extremely well with students, faculty, and staff.

Prof. Michael Simpson, former metallurgy chair and current MSE chair, praised Sara at the ceremony for her dedication to the department and ability to effectively manage it. Sara will play an instrumental role as we work tirelessly to merge the former metallurgical engineering department in with MSE.

Metallurgy Ph.D. Now Makes Medical Radioisotopes

During his Ph.D. studies in the Department of Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Utah, Dr. Milan Stika studied molten salt electrochemistry under Prof. Michael Simpson. They worked on methods for measuring concentrations of actinides in molten salts used for applications such as nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel reprocessing. After a brief stint working for Flibe Energy on development of molten salt fueled nuclear reactors, Milan now works at Niowave, Inc., a company that produces radioisotopes used for medical diagnostics and cancer treatment. The company has a great team of accelerator physicists, nuclear engineers, and radiochemists supporting its mission. As a radiochemist, Milan works on projects that deal with separation of individual radioactive elements.

Niowave irradiates uranium targets to induce fission which creates a variety of useful fission products. The target is then dissolved so that fission products like molybdenum-99 can be harvested. Uranium is first pulled away from the rest of the elements using solvent extraction. It is then recycled into a new target. The elements useful for medical applications are then separated from each other using ion exchange resins and other methods.

Niowave also irradiates radium targets to produce actinium-225, a useful medical isotope along with other alpha emitters for targeted alpha therapy. Actinium is separated from radium and other products of the radium decay chain. Niowave is currently the only US private company producing actinium-225.

According to Milan, “the Department of Metallurgical Engineering was instrumental in helping me prepare for this exciting job in the nuclear sector by offering relevant coursework, networking opportunities, and advisor guidance.”

Metallurgical and Materials Science Departments Merge

Effective July 1, the University of Utah’s departments of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) and Metallurgical Engineering (METE) have merged into a single academic department administered jointly by the College of Engineering and College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

This change has been driven by the joint efforts of College of Engineering Dean Richard B. Brown and College of Mines and Earth Sciences Dean Darryl Butt and widely supported by the faculty of both previous departments.

The motivation for this merger was to create one of the best departments of materials science and engineering in the country. The new academic unit, called the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will have strengths in metals, ceramics, polymers, electrochemistry, nanotechnology, biocompatible materials, semiconductors,  hydro-, electro- and pyrometallurgy, and mineral processing.

Metallurgical engineering professor and department chair, Michael Simpson, has become the chair of the new department. Professor Feng Liu stepped down as chair of the former MSE Department after serving for 7 ½ years.

Materials Science and Engineering Chair Michael Simpson

“This merger is really the best possible path forward for the students and faculty of the two previous departments and the university. Together, we can elevate the University of Utah’s materials program to be one of the best in the country — attracting new investments from industry and government while also attracting the best and brightest students,” said Simpson. “Having the department connected to both the College of Engineering and College of Mines and Earth Sciences puts us in an excellent position to have strong impact over all of campus and promote the idea of One U.”

Any faculty members who had adjunct or research professor appointments in either of these departments have an adjunct or research professor appointment in the new department. Students in the MSE department will enjoy all of the benefits of being members of both COE and CMES and have the opportunity to complete their degrees under current requirements. The faculty will evaluate options for consolidating the bachelor’s and graduate degrees in Materials Sciences and Engineering and in Metallurgical Engineering into unified degrees with different tracks, but current students will have the option of graduating under their current programs.

Dean Brown congratulated Liu on his job as the MSE chair, saying, “Feng is a model researcher, an excellent teacher, an entrepreneur, and a talented musician!  It has been a pleasure for me to work closely with him through this time.”

Since joining U. in 2000, Liu has developed into one of the world’s leading experts in the fields of surface science and epitaxial growth of thin films, and the theory of nanostructures, graphene and topological materials. He won the prestigious Senior Humboldt Award in 2008 and recently was awarded the university’s Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award

An associate chair for MSE will soon be selected and announced. The main office for the new MSE department will be in CME Room #304. The metallurgical engineering department office in the William Browning Building, Room #412 will remain open to provide office support for faculty, staff, and students. The new MSE department will occupy space in both the Browning and CME buildings. There are currently no plans to change class or laboratory locations.

This merger is a major undertaking by the faculty and staff of the previous departments and will take time to be completed. For any questions or concerns, please contact Michael Simpson at michael.simpson@utah.edu or one of the administrative managers, Angela Nelson at angela.nelson@utah.edu or Sara Wilson at sara.j.wilson@utah.edu.

The website for the new department is mse.utah.edu. Town hall meetings for students will soon be scheduled, including one meeting for graduate students in the summer and another for undergraduate students at the beginning of the fall semester.

*NOTE* The new online home for MET E is https://mse.utah.edu/ the previous MET E website is temporarily available online for two months at http://metallurgy.old.utah.edu/ .

Dr. Sparks to speak at TEDxSalt Lake City

The University of Utah Department of Materials Science and Engineering is proud to announce that associate professor Taylor Sparks has been chosen to be a speaker at this year’s TEDxSaltLakeCity event on Sept. 21 at Kingsbury Hall on the university campus in Salt Lake City.

Sparks, whose research is focused on new materials for energy applications such as batteries, thermoelectrics, thermal barrier coatings and more, will be speaking on materials informatics, the process of using big data and machine learning to help researchers solve materials science challenges. The talk, titled “Striking a New Balance in Materials Discovery,” will dive into about how scientists can leverage information stored in materials data and compare that to how they traditionally discover new materials, which can largely be from trial-and-error.

TEDxSaltLake City describes itself as the “Wasatch Front’s leading platform for citizens to present and explore their ideas, stories, and creative solutions.” This year’s lineup will include 14 speakers and six musical acts.

Feng Liu

Liu recognized with Faculty Award

Congratulations to University of Utah electrical and computer engineering professor Cynthia Furse and materials science and engineering chair Feng Liu for receiving the Distinguished Teaching Award and the Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award, respectively.

Both were recognized with the campus-wide honors during the 150th annual University of Utah Commencement as well as the College of Engineering’s convocation on May 3.

Feng Liu — Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award

Since joining University of Utah in 2000, Prof. Feng Liu has developed into one of the world’s leading experts in the fields of surface science and epitaxial growth of thin films, and the theory of nanostructures, graphene and topological materials. He won the prestigious Senior Humboldt Award in 2008 citing: “His work pioneered our understanding of the atomistic mechanisms underlying epitaxial growth of thin films and semiconductor nanostructures.” In 2011, Prof. Liu was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society, based on: “His contribution to theory of nanostructures and strain-induced nanoscale Self-assembly.” “In recent years, he pioneered the fields of organic and surface-based topological materials,” said one nominator. “Prof. Liu has been running an active and well-funded research program which has become one of the largest in the College of Engineering (the group reached 20 people at one point). His research has been steadily supported by federal agencies (DOE, NSF and DOD), the State of Utah and industry. He is among the few people who has been simultaneously funded for two separate DOE-BES core programs, ‘Materials Synthesis and Processing’ and ‘Physical behavior of Materials’ (funded continuously so far for 20 years with an annual budget of $300K).”

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