Science and Engineering

Grant Abstracts 2013

Brandeis University

Irving R. Epstein
Waltham, MA
$1,000,000
December 2013

The goal of this project is to study the self-organization of molecular catalysts under extreme conditions of temperature and acidity as a link between paleobiology and chemistry.  Specifically, the team will (i) develop catalysts that are able to catalyze their own organization or formation; (ii) study the self-organized structures of these catalysts under extreme conditions; and (iii) analyze the evolutionary products associated with these processes.  In these studies, which belong to an unexplored field of chemistry, molecular catalysts will act as the building blocks of abiotic self-organization, and the structures formed by self-organization will determine the reaction pathways and products.  By elucidating how the emergent properties of self organization can enable simple molecules to evolve toward greater structural and organizational complexity without the involvement of sophisticated biological machinery (e.g., enzymes), this work will contribute insights into the fundamental processes that may have first generated life prior to the emergence of biomacromolecules (e.g., nucleic acids or proteins).  The success of this work will not only provide an alternative paradigm for understanding the origin of life but may also lead to new chemistries and/or materials suitable for use under extreme conditions.

Colorado State University

Tomislav Rovis, Eugene Y. Chen
Fort Collins, CO
$1,000,000
December 2013

An enzyme’s selectivity in controlling reactions is supremely powerful, yet it is also its biggest limitation: only a handful of reactions are amenable to enzymatic catalysis.  Conversely, transition metal complexes mediate a vast number of common organic and polymerization reactions.  Union of the generality of transition metal-based transformations with the selectivity available in enzymatic processes would represent a paradigm shift in fine chemical and materials synthesis.  Hence, this project seeks to enable just such a union through creating artificial metalloenzyme catalysts by embedding unnatural metal catalysts in natural biomolecules for materials and fine chemical synthesis, harnessing the strengths of both metal catalysis and biomolecular environments.  Four specific aims are to be achieved en route to accomplishing this central project objective.  It is envisioned that this new transformative catalysis technology will: provide a new tool for makers in many disciplines, enable new directions with an approach orthogonal to traditional methods, achieve unprecedented selectivity and stereoselectivity in the synthesis of fine chemicals and polymer materials, and also make enzymes perform unnatural reactions.  Success in this venture will enable the inaccessible science of organic synthesis to be harnessed into a “kit” technology and become widely used across science and engineering fields.

Louisiana State University

Leslie G. Butler
Baton Rouge, LA
$500,000
December 2013

A novel gantry-based laboratory X-ray interferometry-tomography system will be developed to image materials and biological specimens in five dimensions: space, composition, and time.  A gantry mount holds the X-ray tube, optics, and detector allowing a stationary sample with its environmental chamber to be imaged with the helical scan method.  A grating-based X-ray interferometer system enables differential phase contrast imaging, giving access to contrast mechanisms that complement traditional X-ray absorption imaging.  Data processing uses methods taken from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).  X-ray fluorescence microprobe experiments are enabled by a polycapillary focusing optic, giving near ppm detection limits and some elemental oxidation state information.  A position sensitive, energy resolved detector enables 3D compositional imaging.  New data acquisition strategies permit significant flexibility in the assignment of time windows with the projection data software, and will be used to efficiently couple data acquisition with high performance computing resources, visualization, analysis, and data management.  The new system will complement the LSU synchrotron microtomography beam line and other lab tomography systems.

Oregon State University

P. Alex Greaney
Corvallis, OR
$1,000,000
December 2013

This project aims to engender a new class of responsive materials that change their shape and porosity by exposure to sunlight.  To realize this, the team will develop a novel design led approach to materials development that allies materials science and engineering design theory in order to systematically invent rather than discover new materials.  These materials are able to shape-shift as a result of their molecular architecture, which is based on metal organic frameworks, and are designed to act as a giant stochastic molecular linkage actuated by photoisomerization.  A major challenge that must be overcome is the geometric constraint that the framework imposes on the photoisomerizing actuators.  In this approach the team looks beyond this challenge and seeks to use constraint to an advantage – enabling them to tune previously immutable properties of the photoisomers such as their energy conversion efficiency.  They envision this new material class as enabling diverse applications with significant and lasting societal impact such as self-squeezing hydrogen sponges, active filtration and catalysis, gas separation and C02 capture, environmental monitoring, and solar energy conversion and storage.

University of California, Berkeley

Sanjay Kumar, Niren Murthy
Berkeley, CA
$500,000
December 2013

The ability to measure protein levels in single cells has the potential to revolutionize biology and medicine.  Nowhere is this truer than in cancer, where diagnosis and treatment are increasingly guided by specific molecular markers.  Yet, our ability to clinically exploit single cell proteomics is limited by a lack of sufficiently sensitive protein detection technology that can be easily used by clinical diagnostic and research laboratories.  The goal of this project is to develop an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) platform that will allow researchers to routinely perform single-cell proteomic experiments.  The proposed platform is based on combining microfluidics with a new family of nanoparticle-based ELISA detection substrates, which will collectively increase ELISA sensitivity by 3-4 orders of magnitude and enable single cell proteomics to be conducted with traditional plate readers.  The vision is to create a pipeline in which clinicians can predict disease course and select therapy based on proteomic data from cells isolated from a patient’s tumor.  Given the compelling need for single cell proteomic analysis and the ubiquity of ELISA in research and clinical diagnosis, this work may generate significant impact throughout medicine and biology.

University of California, Irvine

John C. Hemminger
Irvine, CA
$1,000,000
December 2013

It can be argued that liquids are among the most ubiquitous and important phase of matter.  This is particularly true of aqueous solutions, which are of paramount importance to fields as diverse as atmospheric/environmental chemistry, synthetic chemistry, and biological chemistry.  In many areas of application, it is beginning to be recognized that interfaces are “where the action is”.  Yet, a fundamental understanding of the detailed composition and reaction chemistry of the liquid/vapor and liquid/solid interfaces remains entirely inadequate.  Over the last ten years this team has pioneered the development of experimental methods for the quantitative determination of the composition of liquid interfaces.  They have developed x-ray/liquid-jet spectroscopy experiments that have utilized major x-ray synchrotron user facilities (the Advanced Light Source in the U.S., and the BESSY II facility in Berlin, Germany).  Coupling recent experimental developments with improvements in electron energy analyzers and detectors now allows the team to move these experiments into a conventional chemistry laboratory environment.  They propose to develop and employ a conventional, lab-based liquid-jet/x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy instrument for the general study of liquid interfaces.  Providing this unique capability to general laboratory environments will significantly advance the understanding of liquids.

Columbia University

Ken Shepard
New York, NY
$1,000,000
June 2013

Silicon integrated circuits based on complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor technology form the basis for complex electronic systems with billions of transistors. Composed of dielectrics, semiconductors, and metals, these systems are used extensively for communication and computation applications and represent the most complex engineered systems ever created. Evolution has also resulted in complex biological systems. The burgeoning field of synthetic biology hopes to achieve enough understanding of living systems to engineer new functions and systems not found in nature. In particular, living systems offer electronic devices in the form of lipid bilayer membranes, which act as capacitors, storing charge as ionic gradients across these membranes. Proteins that permeate these membranes (trans membrane proteins) control ion transport. By controlling this ion flow, these proteins can harvest energy from the environment (and store this energy as electrochemical potentials); and can sense the environment (other molecules, temperature, pH, voltage) and signal this by opening or closing the channel. We will combine these domains into hybrid engineered integrated systems, exploiting engineered biological components for energetics and sensing with the signal processing and communications provided by silicon-based systems.

University of Akron

David S. Simmons, Alamgir Karim, Kevin A. Cavicchi
Akron, OH
$1,000,000
June 2013

Glasses are ubiquitous – from plants that employ sugar glasses to protect against desiccation, to obsidian arrowheads found in archaeological sites, to polymeric coatings on electronics – yet we lack a basic understanding of the nature of glasses and the glass transition. This project aims to transform our fundamental understanding of the glass transition by identifying and studying glass forming polymers at the extreme limits of glass formation, in terms of the breadth – narrow or broad – of their transition. In order to accomplish this goal, we will implement a hybrid computational/experimental genetic algorithm integrating rapid, semi quantitative molecular simulation techniques with high-throughput polymerization and dielectric spectroscopy to overcome limitations of stand-alone computational and experimental approaches that have restricted rapid discovery of glass-forming systems. Characterization of the physics of these ‘extreme’ materials will provide the basis for establishing a fundamental understanding of the nature of the glass transition. En route to obtaining these physical insights this hybrid approach is expected to yield polymers with exceptional properties, enabling solutions to major materials challenges such as water purification and energy storage, and ultimately resulting in a new paradigm for the rapid discovery of next-generation glassy materials.

University of California, Berkeley

Xiang Zhang, Hartmut Haffner
Berkeley, CA
$1,000,000
June 2013

Dimensionality is the one of the most fundamental aspects of science. Over the last decades, low dimensional materials such as quantum dots and nanotubes have broadly impacted physical science research and applications. A new frontier of physics is the creation of a high dimensional material, such as a 4D space time crystal. A space time crystal breaks both the space and time translation symmetry and would significantly deepen our understanding of nature. In this project, we propose to create the first space time quantum crystal using ions in a microscopic ring trap. At ultralow temperatures, ions spontaneously form a spatial ring crystal. This ion crystal rotates persistently at the lowest energy state in magnetic fields, producing the temporal order and forming a space-time crystal. This new state of matter will provide a new platform for the study of many body physics and deepen our understanding of quantum physics.

University of Colorado, Boulder

Rob Knight
Boulder, CO
$1,000,000
June 2013

This proposal will develop innovative research strategies to understand the global composition of microbial communities by analyzing gene and species dynamics in thousands of ecosystems worldwide. Microbes are the most abundant species on Earth and play vital roles in all ecosystems, but the vast majority remains uncharacterized. We will develop experimental and computational technologies linked to mathematically rich, empirically supported theories to significantly improve our understanding of the microbial world across systems and a range of scales. First, we will spatially and temporally characterize tens of thousands of microbial communities contributed by a network of outstanding collaborators. Second, we will develop new methods for higher-throughput sample handling, DNA extraction and library construction, including illuminating often-neglected taxa such as microbial eukaryotes and viruses, for deeper insight into community dynamics. Third, we will develop computational strategies to solve major hurdles associated with the effective analysis of such vast data sets, including predictive modeling, network analysis, and multi-scale data integration. We will thus enable a broad range of research in microbial ecology, provide novel platforms for testing ecological theories, and improve public understanding of the importance of microbial life.

University of Maryland, College Park

Sylvain Veilleux
College Park, MD
$1,000,000
June 2013

This project will build on the team’s recent breakthroughs in photonics to reverse the mass and cost spiral that would otherwise limit capabilities of giant next-generation ultraviolet/optical/infrared telescopes. Photonics is the use of material to manipulate light. It is the equivalent of electronics but applied to photons rather than electrons. The telecommunication and information technology revolution of recent decades is a direct result of advances in photonics. The team plans to take advantage of this technology to build a breadbox-sized near-infrared spectrometer and improve current sensitivities by a factor of five. By attaching the instrument to existing telescopes, they will identify the most ancient explosive objects in the universe and use them as beacons to probe the conditions in the primeval epoch of galaxy and supermassive black hole formation.

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