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The Science of Surfaces

Physicists Awarded Ohio Research Scholars Grant


Charles Rosenblatt and Kenneth Singer explore the surfaces and interfaces of the physical world. As they like to say, however, their work is "by no means superficial." At the molecular level, surfaces are "extraordinarily complex and scientifically rich." And in recent years, discoveries in surface physics have generated a host of new technologies and products, from solar panels to flat-screen computer monitors and televisions.

Now, thanks to a $14.4 million state grant, Rosenblatt and Singer, two senior faculty members in the department of physics, will be principal investigators in a Northeast Ohio research cluster investigating the surfaces of advanced materials. Participants in the cluster include Kent State University, Youngstown State, and five industry partners. The grant was awarded by the Ohio Research Scholars Program (ORSP), which promotes collaborations in areas critical to the state's economic future.

ORSP support will enable the College's physics department to create two new faculty positions. The grant provides $2.5 million to endow a senior professorship and $1.5 million in start-up funds. It will also cover the start-up package for a new junior faculty member whose salary will come from the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition, ORSP will purchase $1 million in equipment for the department's materials fabrication lab, enhancing its usefulness for both new and current faculty.

Oleg Lavrentovich, director of the research cluster, is the head of Kent State's Liquid Crystal Institute. He has collaborated with Rosenblatt and Singer before: During the 1990s, the three physicists were active in a consortium of universities and high-tech firms called ALCOM (the Center for Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials), funded by the National Science Foundation. Lavrentovich says that when he received the call for proposals from ORSP, "it was a no-brainer to go to the best people I knew."

Another participant, James Andrews from Youngstown State University, earned his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve in 1995. Later, he returned for a sabbatical year to work with Singer, his graduate advisor, and both men are now affiliated with the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems (CLiPS). Andrews says that ORSP will spark "a much more significant research collaboration going forward."

An Unbreakable Link

ORSP was created to attract top scientific talent to Ohio, create centers of research excellence, and target investments in areas likely to generate commercial opportunities. Illustrating what Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher calls "the unbreakable link between economic development and higher education," the program is jointly funded and administered by the Ohio Department of Development and the Ohio Board of Regents.

This spring, ORSP awarded more than $143 million to ten research clusters in such fields as biomedical imaging, materials development, and advanced energy systems. The grants will endow a total of 26 Ohio Research Scholars, all of them senior scientists who will be recruited from outside the state. Case Western Reserve is involved in three of the clusters and will receive a total of three ORSP positions.

According to Rosenblatt and Singer, research on the surfaces of advanced materials has already demonstrated its commercial importance. Work conducted under ALCOM's auspices resulted in several new technology applications and corporate spin-offs. A collaboration between Rosenblatt, his physics colleague Rolfe Petschek, and Kent State physicist Michael Fisch led to the development of a new liquid crystal display (LCD) technology that became Case Western Reserve's biggest source of royalty income during the mid-1990s.

In addition to conducting pioneering research, the participating universities will promote ORSP's goals by educating scientists to work in emerging industries. Half of the 12 to 15 Ph.D. students who enter the physics department each year join the advanced materials research group, and several master's students enroll in the College's Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP). One recent Ph.D., Irina Shinovskaya, won a university competition with her business plan for a liquid crystal optics company—and then established the company after she graduated. In collaboration with STEP director Edward Caner, Rosenblatt and Singer hope to obtain funding to enable a dozen STEP students to participate in the research cluster over the next five years.

Working at the Nanoscale

Surface physics, Singer says, "is a long-standing, traditional strength in our department. There are a lot of alumni from that research group—at one time, it was by far our biggest group, in terms of students supported and so forth. Now, we have the opportunity to enhance our already strong position."

Singer points out that the advent of nanoscale science and engineering has made surface physics more relevant than ever. "Anytime you look at something on the nanoscale," he explains, "most of it is surface." At the same time, physicists are deploying nanotechnology to create new research tools. Rosenblatt recently invented a technique that produces three-dimensional images of liquid crystals and other materials at a scale of tens of nanometers—roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair. His work on "optical nanotomography" recently appeared in the journal Nature Physics.

The physics department currently receives $1.6 million a year from federal agencies and from U.S. industry for advanced materials research. International partnerships play an important role as well. Both Singer and his physics colleague Walter Lambrecht receive funding from NSF's Materials World Network program for their overseas collaborations, and Rosenblatt receives funds directly from the French Foreign Ministry for work with a colleague in Paris.

The appointment of an Ohio Research Scholar to the faculty is certain to generate substantial new support. As physics chair Daniel Akerib explains, "We will be recruiting an established scientist who is guaranteed to bring activity here." And the search for outstanding candidates will be bolstered by the addition of two new Ohio Research Scholars to Kent State's faculty. "It's easier to recruit stars," Akerib says, "when they see other stars being recruited."

With its new hires, the department will attain what Akerib calls "a critical mass" of researchers in surface physics, making it possible to secure long-term funding from the federal government, expand course offerings, and admit larger numbers of highly qualified graduate students. Moreover, all of this activity will assist the department in meeting a major strategic goal: the establishment of a Center for Advanced Materials Physics.

"We had a two-phase plan for building the center," Singer explains. "Essentially, the ORSP grant completes Phase I." Akerib credits this achievement to "the initiative and success of our faculty, the support of our dean, and the valuable partnerships we have with colleagues at Kent State and Youngstown State University."


Through the efforts of Charles Rosenblatt (left) and Kenneth Singer, the physics department will acquire two new faculty members, including a senior-level Ohio Research Scholar.
Photo: Daniel Milner

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