Curtarolo Wins Presidential Award From Department Of Defense

DURHAM, N.C. – In recognition of his discovery and characterization of novel combinations of elements, Duke engineer and physicist Stefano Curtarolo, Ph.D., has received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

The award, the highest honor given to scientists by the federal government, also carries $1 million in research support over five years. Many federal agencies participate in the PECASE program – Curtarolo was recommended by the Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research (ONR), which had granted him a Young Investigator Award in 2007 (ONR-YiP).

Stefano CurtaroloCurtarolo received the award Dec. 19 during a ceremony at the White House.

Curtarolo, who joined the Duke faculty in 2003, is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Sciences and in the Department of Physics.

As a theoretician, Curtarolo uses supercomputers to search for and test novel combinations of elements for specific purposes, or to better understand existing materials. He searches for such materials as novel titanium alloys for marine structures, new superconductors, ceramic materials for nuclear detection, and metallic nanoparticles for growing nanotubes and fuel cell alloys for energy conversion.

Specifically, he searches for these combinations at the nano scale, where the macroscopic laws of physics don’t always apply. Because he works in such small systems, sometimes involving a few hundred atoms at a time, supercomputers are employed to calculate all the possible combinations of materials and their properties. For example, he used the supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Center at the National Science Foundation-sponsored University of Texas – Austin to discover thermodynamic instabilities in iron nano-catalysts governing the minimum size of nanotubes that can be grown.

“This grant will allow me and my team to extend our research in current areas as well as into exciting new avenues,” Curtarolo said. “We expect to expand our investigations into such areas as titanium alloys, nano-catalysts for energy production and conversion, new materials for detecting radiation and strategies for reducing friction between quasi-crystalline surfaces.”

Curtarolo also is involved in improving access to research for students with disabilities and those from under-represented minorities.

In addition to the ONR awards, Curtarolo received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation in 2007.

For the PECASE award, the Office of Naval Research cited Curtarolo’s “research on physics and thermodynamics of superconducting materials, topological transitions of quasi-crystalline thin films, size-induced instabilities in nano-catalysts; and for mentoring minority graduate students.”

After receiving his undergraduate training at the University of Padova, Italy, Curtarolo earned an M.S. degree in condensed matter physics from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003.