New focus put on eclectic field

The diverse field of materials science has seen a new boom in interest and enrollment.

Ethan Nelson

A substance hailed as a “wonder material” could make computers and smartphones run a million times faster in the future.

The material — black phosphorus — might offer a better replacement for the copper wire that currently helps make devices run when compared to other alternative technology experts had been considering.

The University of Minnesota study, published Monday, is the latest example of a recent spike in research involving materials science. The diverse field is gaining attention largely because of increased focus on areas in need of innovation, like energy and health care.

Experts say different disciplines call on materials science to create better, more-efficient products — and people in those disciplines have begun to realize that in recent years.

“New materials drive technology,” said Dan Frisbie, head of the University’s chemical engineering and materials science department.

The University houses one of just a handful of Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers in the country. Most recently, the centers received $56 million  in total from the National Science Foundation. The University’s center received a $17.8 million renewal last month.

The black phosphorous study is the first to prove the material’s potential as a component in electrical circuits.

Electrical engineering graduate student and the study’s lead author Nathan Youngblood said he couldn’t guess how long it would take for black phosphorus to be practical commercially but said IBM and Intel are also researching the material.

Youngblood said he had to teach himself about the element’s properties before he could apply it to his own research in electrical engineering.

“There are challenges like that that are materials-science-related challenges,” he said. “We just have to learn to deal with them.”

Tim Lodge, who has directed the University’s MRSEC since 2005, said materials science researchers like Youngblood are looking to go beyond making computers faster. Other innovations in the field include improving prosthetics, making fuel more efficient and providing clean water in developing countries.

“A key part to the center’s success is collaboration,” he said. “One of the trends of the last 25 years has been a blurring between science and engineering. We’ve been ahead of that curve all that time.”

College of Science and Engineering Dean Steven Crouch said the level of student interest in the field is also growing.

Enrollment in the materials engineering program has grown from 20 to 60 students in three years, he said. In November, the University completed a $30 million addition to Amundson Hall  to meet the increased student demand.

Though interest is up, Frisbie said it’s difficult to quantify the research published in the field because so many different departments use elements of materials science in their studies.

The increased attention to materials science is a national trend, too, said Todd Osman, executive director of the Materials Research Society, a national organization.

Though federal funding hasn’t grown significantly in the past few years, he said this is the most interest in the field he’s ever seen.

“The importance of materials to meeting consumers’ demand and solving problems that society faces is now much more widely recognized than it was 25 years ago,” Lodge said.