Science and Engineering

Grant Abstracts 2015

Arizona State University

Peter R. Buseck, Jun Wu, S.-H. Dan Shim, Kurt Leinenweber, Zachary Sharp, Stephen Romaniello, Ariel Anbar, Steve Desch, Linda Elkins-Tanton
Tempe, AZ
$1,500,000
December 2015

The origin of Earth’s water and hydrogen is a long-debated, yet unsolved mystery.  Current models dismiss the theory that a significant source is solar-nebula H2 and H2O ingassed into an early magma ocean.  This theory would require that substantial amounts of isotopically light hydrogen be removed from the mantle and presumably stored in the core.  Data supportive of the ingassing hypothesis are lacking because experimental measurements are extremely challenging.  This group of researchers developed breakthrough techniques enabling previously impossible measurements of hydrogen solubility and isotopic fractionation in molten iron at the high pressures and temperatures characteristic of the early Earth’s magma ocean.  The method encapsulates iron and hydrogen in carbon nano-onions using innovations in electron microscopy and diamond-anvil-cell pressurization, producing stable iron hydride for subsequent analysis by mass spectrometry specially designed for nanogram quantities of hydrogen.  They will use experimental data to model ingassing of proto-atmospheres into magma oceans and to predict the isotopic composition and amount of water on Earth.  Successful demonstration of the method would significantly advance high-pressure technology.  Data supporting the ingassing hypothesis would be a game changer, with impact reverberating across geophysics, geochemistry, and planetary science.

Colorado State University

Amy Prieto, James Neilson
Fort Collins, CO
$1,000,000
December 2015

Materials enable and limit the invention of new technologies, yet most new materials have been discovered by serendipity.  Hence a challenge facing the field is how to efficiently and effectively discover new materials with technology-enabling properties without relying on chance.  A team at Colorado State University proposes to approach this problem in a new way.  Instead of starting with a known compound and trying to optimize its properties, or using inadequate theoretical models to guide the discovery, they will use the fundamental physical properties required for a specific application to guide and select for both the synthetic conditions and the resulting materials.  The approach uses “natural selection” to make next-generation chemically dynamic materials for diverse applications.  By emphasizing the properties required by a certain application, the approach aims to establish a paradigm where materials that behave in a desired way are the only materials that form.  The focus will be on chemically dynamic materials that permit ion mobility, as used for electrolytes in sensors, batteries, fuel cells, and for membranes in water purification and catalysis.  If successful the methodology will enable new pathways to the discovery and implementation of materials with useful properties across a diverse range of technologies.

Lehigh University

Martin P. Harmer, Elizabeth A. Holm, Gregory S. Rohrer
Bethlehem, PA
$1,000,000
December 2015

The atoms in the solids that we interact with in the material world typically move exponentially faster with increasing temperature, obeying a classical law of physics called the Arrhenius equation.  Such thermally activated motion fundamentally limits the properties and performance of materials.  A grand challenge in condensed matter science is to combat or ideally reverse this trend.  Examples of counter Arrhenius (anti-thermal) behavior exist, some previously observed by these investigators, in which atoms actually move slower when they get hotter and faster when they get colder, reversing what is normally expected in nature.  We know anti-thermal behavior involves only a sub-set of atoms located between internal grains (grain boundaries).  This team, which includes collaborators at Carnegie Mellon University, will pursue the atomic mechanisms for these anti-thermal processes by combining atomistic simulations of the temperature dependence of grain boundary velocities for a vast number of possible boundary types, with a new experimental approach for isolating and measuring the independent velocities of individual boundary types simultaneously and in-situ hot-stage atomic resolution microscopy.  They aim to uncover the mechanism of anti-thermal behavior and to identify the boundary characteristics that exhibit the strongest anti-thermal behavior, guiding the purposeful design of new materials with enhanced thermal performance.

Montana State University

Brent Peyton, Brian Bothner, Eric Boyd, Ross Carlson, Valérie Copié, Matthew Fields, Robin Gerlach, Bill Inskeep, Heather Rauser, Susie Couch, Jamie Cornish, Christine Smith
Bozeman, MT
$1,000,000
December 2015

A team of investigators from Montana State University will integrate fundamental and applied research to characterize and grow novel hyperthermophilic alkaliphilic Archaea – hardy microorganisms living at extremely high temperature and in strongly alkaline environments.  Specific hot springs in Yellowstone National Park’s remote Heart Lake Geyser Basin contain a large majority of these microorganisms that have never before been grown in a laboratory.  The team will bring to bear Montana State’s Thermal Biology Institute’s history of high quality, interdisciplinary research in thermal environments and state-of-the-art techniques to tackle the following Aims: 1) DNA sequencing and single cell genomics for discovery of novel protein encoding genes within microbial communities; 2) protein analysis and small molecule metabolite analysis for important insights into proteins and compounds that allow these thermoalkaliphilic organisms to grow and survive under such extreme conditions; 3) novel culturing techniques using unique electron donor/acceptor combinations and distinctive cathode/anode based culturing strategies; and, 4) screening and characterization of pathways, enzymes, and metabolites of value in renewable fuels and chemicals, medical applications, and novel thermostable compounds.

University of Michigan

Zhaohui Zhong, Ted Norris, Jeff Fessler
Ann Arbor, MI
$1,200,000
December 2015

From early cave drawings to digital photography, breakthroughs in humankind’s ability to record images have always been driving forces for modern civilization.  In the digital age, the core of image recording technology is a photodetector - a device translating a two-dimensional (2D) distribution of the light intensity into an electrical signal.  The basic configuration of imaging systems has barely changed for decades despite ever-burgeoning consumer photo and video electronics and the increasingly central role of imaging in medical and industrial applications.  The light rays emanating from 3D objects in a scene, however, contain additional spatial and angle information (the 4D light field).  This project will create a new light detection technology platform able to recover the light-field of any scene.  The research is enabled by the development of graphene and related atomic-layer crystals together with the invention of novel nanophotonic devices.  These 2D atomic crystals offer unique opportunities for high sensitivity, ultimately thin, and transparent photodetectors, something unimaginable with conventional photodetectors.  This investigation of light-field nanophotonics could not only broaden our basic knowledge of light sensing and imaging, but also open up previously unimaginable opportunities for frontier optoelectronic applications.

Northwestern University

Hooman Mohseni, Melville Ulmer, Olivier Guyon
Evanston, IL
$1,000,000
June 2015

A team at Northwestern University aims to transform the field of near-infrared (NIR) imaging by designing, creating and testing a new NIR camera with far better sensitivity and utility than existing detector technologies.  The promise of this camera derives from its use of proprietary bio-inspired electron injectors, a technology whose capabilities geometrically increase as the size of the injectors decreases.  The team will develop novel solutions that address long-standing sensitivity limitations of NIR cameras.  Once the camera is completed, the team will demonstrate its capabilities by the direct imaging of exoplanets on the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.  The camera will eventually make possible images of Earth-like exoplanets with extremely large telescopes such as the Thirty Meter Telescope now under construction.  Ultimately, this NIR camera promises as well to impact medical imaging (e.g., deep tissue optical coherence tomography), 3D imaging (e.g., for self-driving vehicles) and photon-number resolving (e.g., for scalable quantum computing).

Rice University

Carrie Masiello, Matthew Bennett, Joff Silberg, George Bennett
Houston, TX
$1,000,000
June 2015

Microbes drive processes in the Earth system far exceeding their physical scale, mediating significant fluxes in the global carbon and nitrogen cycles.  Microbial behavior also affects soil development, water quality and crop yields.  The tools of synthetic biology have the potential to significantly improve our understanding of microbes in the Earth system; however, these tools have not yet seen wide laboratory use because synthetically programmed microbes are hard to deploy into many Earth materials, the vast majority of which are not transparent and are heterogeneous (soils, sediments and biomass).  A team at Rice University proposes to develop a new class of volatile gas reporters that will allow examination of biological processes in the Earth system using synthetically crafted microbes.  As proof of concept, they propose to study how soil environmental parameters (moisture, nutrient status, mineralogy, structure and temperature) influence microbial cell-cell communication and the production of proteins that transform soil organic matter and affect its stability.  Increasing evidence points to the importance of intercellular signaling in controlling microbial metabolism in populations that generate large fluxes in the global carbon and nitrogen cycles.  This includes three microbial processes (methanogenesis, denitrification and respiration) that play major roles in maintaining the Earth’s greenhouse.

University of California, Santa Barbara

Stephen Wilson
Santa Barbara, CA
$1,000,000
June 2015

The goal of this project is to push the frontiers of materials discovery forward through the creation of a high-pressure, laser-based, optical furnace capable of floating-zone (FZ) growth of single crystals at the frontier of new quantum phase discovery – where the pressure and design limitations of existing technology prevent scientific exploration.  The ability to grow high purity crystals of inorganic materials has historically driven not only the development of materials underlying current technologies, but it has also traditionally fueled the engine of discovery at the frontiers of electronic/quantum phase behavior.  Despite this historical and continued importance, a lack of continued investment in the development FZ techniques has left an inability to utilize this ultrahigh purity process to grow crystals of volatile and high-pressure stabilized oxides – a materials phase space where the next generation of electronic/quantum phases are predicted to emerge.  As a result, experimental exploration of these materials is at an impasse.  Through the support of WMKF, we will surmount this obstacle by reimagining existing FZ techniques and constructing a furnace capable of reaching pressures an order of magnitude greater than the current state of the art.  We will then use this furnace to grow and explore crystals of a class of volatile oxides, iridates, where new exotic quantum phenomena are predicted to appear.

University of Delaware

Matthew Doty, Joshua Zide, Diane Sellers, Chris Kloxin, John Slater, Emily Day
Newark, DE
$1,000,000
June 2015

Photon upconversion is a process through which two or more low-energy (long wavelength) photons are converted into one high-energy (short wavelength) photon.  Efficient photon upconversion could dramatically improve performance in a wide range of technologies including solar energy harvesting, energy-efficient lighting and displays, and biomedical diagnostics and therapeutics.  Existing upconversion materials have poor efficiency and generate a large amount of waste heat.  Our new paradigm for photon upconversion overcomes these limits by engineering semiconductor nanostructures to make a small sacrifice of energy after each photon absorption step (the “photon ratchet”).  This controlled energy sacrifice dramatically improves upconversion efficiency and minimizes the loss of energy to heat.  This project supports growth, characterization and optimization of the new photon upconversion nanostructures and generation of proof-of-concept data for two applications.  We will first demonstrate that our new approach provides a path to high-efficiency photovoltaics at reduced cost.  We will then demonstrate that our paradigm also allows us to overcome present limitations to gene therapy by enabling optically-triggered in vivo release of genetic payloads from functionalized, efficient upconversion nanoparticles.

University of Southern California / Southern California Earthquake Center

Tom Jordan
Los Angeles, CA
$2,000,000
June 2015

This project will construct a Collaboratory for Interseismic Simulation and Modeling (CISM) that will allow scientists to forge physics-based models into comprehensive earthquake forecasts using California as its primary test bed.  Recent earthquake disasters in Italy, Japan, and New Zealand demonstrate why short-term forecasts of seismic sequences, in combination with consistent long-term forecasts, are critical for reducing risks and enhancing preparedness.  CISM will improve predictability by combining rupture simulators that account for the physics of rupture nucleation and stress transfer with ground-motion simulators that account for wave excitation and propagation.  CISM forecasting models will be tested against observed earthquake behaviors within the existing Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability, and they will be contributed to the USGS’s new program of operational earthquake forecasting in California.  Practical outcomes will be “seismic weather reports” that contain authoritative information about the short-term probability of potentially damaging earthquakes, as well as long-term models that better represent the current state of the California fault system.  WMKF Fellowships in Earthquake Forecasting Research will provide early-career scientists with unique positions to master the most advanced forecasting models and creatively use them in their own research.

University of Texas at Austin

Mark Raizen
Austin, TX
$1,000,000
June 2015

This project proposes a new method for cooling the motion of atoms in gas phase towards absolute zero.  This method will far surpass laser cooling, the existing paradigm for the past thirty years, in terms of generality, flux of ultra-cold atoms, and atomic density.  Specifically, the new method is predicted to demonstrate an atom laser with a flux that is a factor of up to a hundred million times higher than current state-of-the-art.  The methodology is based on the supersonic beam, an extremely bright source of atoms.  Entrainment of desired atoms into the beam will be optimized using a novel pulsed source.  The atoms will be captured in a moving magnetic trap and brought to rest in the laboratory frame.  The atoms will be further cooled using evaporative cooling in order to reach quantum degeneracy.  The team will also develop a novel cooling method that uses lasers to control the internal state of the atom via optical pumping, together with magnetic forces from pulsed electromagnets.  The new source of atoms will be used for atomic interferometry, enabling more sensitive tests of general relativity.  Applications include noninvasive detection of gravitational anomalies, such as underground tunnels, as well as oil and gas exploration.  This work may also provide a breakthrough in ion and electron sources for lithography and microscopy, with significant impact on nanoscience.

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