Three University of Akron researchers have received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to develop new glasses with extraordinary properties.
“Whoever solves this will probably win a Nobel Prize,” said David Simmons, UA assistant professor of polymer engineering and principal investigator.
UA’s award is the first Keck Foundation grant issued to an Ohio research team in more than five years, the university said. Past recipients of Keck grants have included Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Columbia universities.
“This is a very big thing for us,” UA Provost Mike Sherman told about 40 community members at a presentation about the grant Thursday on campus. “It is a great accomplishment. It is essential to the question of how things work.”
With colleagues Alamgir Karim, associate dean for research, and Kevin Cavicchi, associate professor of polymer engineering, Simmons will spend the next three years investigating glasses — noncrystalline, solid materials that are mysterious to researchers in many ways.
Glasses are composed of molecules that are jammed together and disordered, in a mystery zone between liquids (composed of mobile, disordered molecules) and crystals (composed of uniformly ordered and immobile molecules).
“The fundamental thing we don’t understand is why glasses act as solids,” Simmons said. “Do they act like solids because they are really solid like most minerals and metals? Or do they act like solids simply because they’re very, very slow liquids?”
The team hopes to develop a new generation of glass materials with strong barriers to oxygen and water. The new materials could drive new technologies — possibly smartphones that wrap around the wrist, for instance, or capsules that protect drugs from temperature variation or flexible sheets of solar cells or membranes that pull salt out of seawater.
Simmons is an expert in the simulation of polymers and glass formation. Karim is an expert in nanotechnology and properties-measurement scientist. Cavicchi specializes in materials synthesis.
UA will match the Keck grant with $150,000, Sherman said.
The Keck Foundation, based in Los Angeles, supports high-risk and high-impact medical, engineering and scientific research with far-reaching implications, according to its website.