Materials Science Research Receives Grant for New X-ray Scattering Instrument
Kent State University’s Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute (AMLCI) soon will be home to a new X-ray scattering instrument capable of examining materials in scales from as small as a fraction of a nanometer to as large as several micrometers.
The state-of-the-art machine, with unique capabilities and options, is one of just a handful in operation in the United States, and is expected to be used by numerous universities throughout Northeast Ohio as well as in private industry.
The technology acquisition is possible due to committed National Science Foundation and Ohio Action Fund grants received by the institute totaling nearly $750,000. The instrument will be constructed in dedicated space in the lower level of the Integrated Sciences Building – work that should be completed by spring 2021.
For Torsten Hegmann, Ph.D., director of the institute and principal investigator on the grant, the acquisition is a first step toward fulfilling one of his main goals for the institute: renewing its infrastructure.
When he was named director in 2019, Hegmann said one of his main goals would be to focus on grant writing in order to acquire new equipment for the university and he was pleased to have such early success.
“I feel very certain that anybody who deals with advanced materials such as soft matter, nanomaterials or polymers, among many others, will want to use this instrument,” Hegmann said.
The goal is to establish a regional multi-user research and education facility for Northeast Ohio at Kent State, for the study of the structure and structural evolution in liquid crystals, active matter, polymers, composites, nanomaterials, minerals and biogeochemical processes.
The grant proposal was submitted by Kent State and referenced 24 research teams whose work would be supported by use of the equipment – collaboration that Hegmann said will make Kent State a hub for the structural research of materials using X-ray. Seven polymer researchers from the University of Akron (UA) played an integral role in assisting with the grant process and will be some of the primary users of the equipment.
Hegmann said the instrument will be used by Kent State’s departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Physics, Biological Sciences and College of Aeronautics and Engineering, as well as the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at UA.
The technology also should be a draw for those in private industry who wish to use this type of device, he said.
Hegmann said the X-ray machine will help researchers fully understand the complex internal structure of soft matter, such as polymers and liquid crystals, by providing access to a broad range of spatial scales. Ultrasmall-, small- and wide-angle X-ray scattering techniques are crucial for characterizing structure and structure evolution in these materials, he explained.
A polarized optical light microscope is contained within the device to provide additional microscopic analysis of the materials.
Paul DiCorleto, Ph.D., vice president for research and sponsored programs, said the university was excited about the NSF award and the accompanying contribution from the state of Ohio, which made the instrument purchase possible.
Researchers at Cleveland State University, Case Western Reserve University and the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Miami (of Ohio) University in Oxford and Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, have expressed interest in using the machine, as well as various local industry, including United Technologies, Lubrizol, RPM International, Sherwin-Williams, Saint Gobain, Ashlawn Energy, Alpha Micron and Kent Displays, according to Hegmann.
“All of these parties have expressed interest in using the capabilities of this instrument to enable cutting edge, multidisciplinary research, development and education on soft matter, macromolecular science and nanomaterials,” Hegmann said.
In Ohio, the polymer and optical device industry employs more than 150,000 and generates more than $50 billion in annual revenue. In the Akron area alone there are more than 400 polymer-related companies employing about 35,000, he said.
“We plan to use the instrument to study advanced polymer materials, including polymer additives, nanostructured polymers, conductive polymers, colloidal systems and active matter,” said Kevin Cavicchi, Ph.D., professor of polymer engineering at the University of Akron and co-principal investigator for the grant.
“This complements the research efforts in the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State and continues the longstanding collaboration between the University of Akron’s School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering and the institute,” Cavicchi said. “I look forward to the opportunity to build the user base for this instrument throughout Northeast Ohio and integrate this instrument into advanced coursework and outreach programs at UA.”
Hegmann said research that will benefit from use of the instrument includes materials for tissue engineering and understanding the processes of multiple sclerosis, sensors that will save the lives of first responders or detect disease, and DNA nanostructures that can be used as biosensors or to help understand cancer processes.
“Other areas of research that will use the instrument could produce groundbreaking insights into polymer recycling and bio-renewable plastics that will help save the planet and generate results that will advance our understanding of biogeochemical processes involved in groundwater contamination,” Hegmann said.
In total, the X-ray scattering machine will cost $873,228. Of that, $611,260 was a grant from the NSF’s Major Research Infrastructure Program. The state committed a $130,984 grant which Kent State matched with costs shared by AMLCI, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Division of Research and Sponsored Programs.
Hegmann said the university submitted the grant application to NSF in January and learned over the summer that the grant had been awarded.
Having this kind of technology in-house is a boon for Kent State researchers and will help to serve as a draw for future faculty considering coming to Kent State, Hegmann said.
He said another attractive feature of the instrument is that it will be designed and constructed in such a way that it can be updated as new technology is developed.
“The instrument is very future-oriented and will be designed uniquely so that future researchers who aren’t even on campus yet, will be able to modify it and use it in the future,” Hegmann said.
He said the intent is to also use the instrument for outreach activities to provide novel STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities for K-12 teachers and undergraduate research students “to expose them to exciting, cutting-edge materials and the techniques that help analyze them.”