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DNA-Based Nanobots Earn Duke MEMS Its Fifth DMREF Award for Materials Science

Collaborative work on “Designing Materials that Revolutionize and Engineer our Future” now totals more than $7.5 million

Sharing in a new $1.75 million award to develop nanoscopic robotic devices made entirely of DNA, Duke Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) faculty member Gaurav Arya has nabbed the department’s fifth “Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future” grant—among the most competitive in the field of materials science. 

Including Arya’s recent award, Duke MEMS faculty has worked on projects totaling more than $7.5 million in DMREF funding in recent years.

Including Arya’s recent award, Duke MEMS faculty has worked on projects totaling more than $7.5 million in DMREF funding in recent years.

Administered by the National Science Foundation, the DMREF awards spur participation in the Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness, or MGI.  Advanced materials discovery and development has massive potential to benefit society through applications in health, energy, advanced computing, sustainability, and beyond, and MGI seeks to bolster shared computational frameworks for materials science to improve coordination research efforts across the country. This emphasis on collaboration and communication means that DMREF award winners must demonstrate both an integrated team approach to projects and a commitment to making digital data accessible to the broader research community.  

For Arya, this means working as part of a team to develop tiny robotic devices that can sense their microenvironment—stresses within cells, for example—and assemble the devices into larger systems capable of transmitting sensed signals or driving macroscopic collective behaviors. Arya’s specific role in the project, given his expertise in physics-based computational tools, is to develop multi-scale models of the devices that will facilitate design, predict individual and collective behaviors, and guide and interpret experimental measurements; $481,250 is earmarked for his endeavor. Researchers at Ohio State University will collaborate with Arya on the project. 

Eight MEMS-affiliated faculty at Duke have worked on five other DMREF projects in recent years, with another soon to begin: 

  • HybriD3: Discovery, Design, Dissemination of Organic-Inorganic Hybrid Semiconductor Materials for Optoelectronic Applications – Volker Blum and David Mitzi, Duke, with collaborators at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ($662,500 of $1.5 million total; a $100,000 supplement was awarded to Duke, in collaboration with the MiCCOM center at the University of Chicago)
  • A Data-Centric Approach for Accelerating the Design of Future Nanostructured Polymers and Composites Systems – Cate Brinson, Duke, with collaborators at RPI and Northwestern University ($809,379 of $1.6 million total)
  • High Throughput Exploration of Sequence Space of Peptide Polymers that Exhibit Aqueous Demixing Phase Behavior – Ashutosh Chilkoti and Stefan Zauscher, Duke, with collaborators at Washington University ($1.2 million of 1.4 million total)
  • High-Throughput Simulations and Experiments to Develop Metallic Glasses – Stefano Curtarolo and W. Neal Simmons, Duke, with collaborators at Yale and Harvard University ($400,000 of $1.2 million total) 

Hybrid3 model

Research scientist Cormac Toher, a member of Curtarolo’s group, has won a share of an upcoming $1.75 million DMREF project seeking to accelerate the discovery of high-entropy silicates for extreme environments, which is slated to begin in October 2019. His three collaborators on the project come from the University of Virginia.  

Finally, professor of MEMS and biomedical engineering Michael Rubinstein recently wrapped up a DMREF project on acoustically transformative materials that began in 2014, when he was among the faculty at UNC. 

Under the auspices of these DMREF awards, researchers are creating new hybrid materials for light-emitting diodes, speeding the discovery and development of new materials through searchable databases, and exploring how soft materials might be engineered to change shape in response to environmental stimuli like light and heat. 

“The holy grail in materials science has long been to be able to understand and predict all physical properties of a material based on composition and processing.”

-Cate Brinson, Chair, Mechnical Engineering and Materials Science

“The holy grail in materials science has long been to be able to understand and predict all physical properties of a material based on composition and processing,” said Cate Brinson, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Duke. “Each of these DMREF projects at Duke employs design principles, computational models, data methods, experimentation and collaborative closed-loop science towards the design of new materials in five important areas of materials science with far-reaching applications.”   

The exciting new projects have also been successful in drawing in talented students who wish to gain practical lab experience while working on the frontiers of materials science. Many students from Duke Engineering and beyond—including NC A&T, Purdue, and Carnegie Mellon Universities—have worked on these NSF-funded projects during summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REUs. The Duke Energy Initiative and Office of Undergraduate Research Support Office together funded another student’s work to create a publicly available database of hybrid organic-inorganic materials and their properties—work that led to a $100,000 award supplement for the project. 

And, recently, a graduate student completed his DMREF project-centered master’s thesis and will continue his study of biomaterials within a PhD program at a collaborating university—yet another way in which the research efforts are branching out to bear fruit. 

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