Glass research earns Lehigh a coveted NSF award


University is one of three chosen for competitive International Materials Institute grant

Lehigh University has received a highly competitive grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish an international research and education center promoting new uses of glass.

The International Materials Institute (IMI) for New Functionality in Glasses, a collaboration between Lehigh and Penn State University, will receive $3,250,000 over the five-year lifetime of the grant, which is renewable. Additional funds will be provided by Lehigh.

Himanshu Jain, the Diamond Chair Professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh and principal investigator in the grant, says the new IMI will create opportunities for students and faculty from around the world to collaborate on glass-related research and develop multimedia educational modules on glass. The co-principal investigator of the grant is Carlo Pantano, director of Penn State's Materials Research Institute.

More than 30 universities or consortiums of universities applied to NSF this year for IMI grants. Three were awarded, including Lehigh's, an IMI at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an IMI representing a consortium of six universities - California, Princeton, Chicago, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rutgers, Florida State - and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Lehigh IMI represents an outgrowth of Jain's 25 years of glass-related research and his collaborations with researchers in Germany, Greece, India, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic.

Glass's unique properties make it useful for many modern applications, says Jain. Because it can transmit light signals for hundreds of miles, optical glass fiber is a vital component of Internet and broad-band applications. And because glass is easy to shape and does not dissolve or corrode, it can safely store nuclear and radioactive waste materials.

In a list of the 20th century's 20 greatest engineering achievements, published by the National Academy of Engineering, half the entries made use of glass, Jain says. These included cars, airplanes, radios and TVs, the Internet, laser and fiber optics, and nuclear technologies.

The goal of the Lehigh IMI is to develop new functions of glass for the 21st century.

In his proposal to NSF, Jain and Pantano listed six new potential uses, or functionalities, of glass. These are glassy meta-materials, including novel glasses and nanocomposites; functional coatings; glasses engineered for strength; ionic functionality; optical functionality; and biofunctionality.

Applications of these new functionalities include arrays of micro- and nanolenses, 3D information storage, optical sensors and displays, glasses engineered for toughness (less brittle glasses), glass for DNA analysis, glass films for viewing x-rays, micro- and nano-electronics, glasses on which bacteria cannot grow, glasses for hydrogen storage, and more.

The Lehigh IMI will seek to reverse what Jain calls the worldwide fragmentation of glass research caused in the past 20 years by the elimination or downsizing of industrial laboratories and the shift of government funding to other areas of materials research.

Today, Jain says, glass research is conducted at many universities but usually by a solitary faculty member offering a single survey course on the topic. "The result is a larger number of students exposed to glassy materials, but with relatively shallow, cursory knowledge that does not prepare them to become professional glass scientists or engineers."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is struggling to maintain its lead in the field. In the past 25 years, of all the papers on glass research published in technical journals, the percentage with an American author listed first has fallen steadily, says Jain.

"By comparison," he says, "the fraction of research conducted in Europe and Asia has remained stable or increased slightly. Other countries, like Brazil, which had negligible [research programs] two decades ago, now have vibrant programs, relatively speaking."

In addition to exploring new uses for glass by pooling the talents of glass researchers, says Jain, the Lehigh IMI will seek to educate a new generation of glass experts and to attract under-represented groups to the field.

One of the IMI's first acts will be to invite Rui Almeida, a professor in the department of engineering materials at the Instituto Superior Tecnico in Lisbon, Portugal, to Lehigh this fall to teach a new class, "Optical and Photonic Glasses," both to seniors and graduate students at Lehigh and to students at other universities via the Internet.

The new IMI will be overseen by a U.S. board of advisers, with eight members representing eight universities and national labs, and an international board of advisers, with 10 members representing 10 countries. The two boards, along with a trio of advisers from glass companies, will help Jain and Pantano evaluate research and collaboration proposals.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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