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Foundation Funds Study of Glass Formation Processes

Magnifying Glass (Tomomarusan/Wikimedia Commons)

(Tomomarusan/Wikimedia Commons)

A research team at University of Akron in Ohio is studying the formation of glass materials, processes that cover much more than materials found in windows. The team led by Akron polymer engineering professor David Simmons is funded by a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Simmons is joined in the project by polymer engineering colleagues Alamgir Karim and Kevin Cavicchi. Together they are investigating the way glass molecules form into  the solid matter found in magnifying glasses and windows, as well as materials with glass-like properties, such as polymer smartphone screens and solidified sugar coatings on drug compounds.

The Keck Foundation grant is financing the group’s research to discover the way the disordered and mobile molecules in liquids transform into the more orderly and stable molecules of glasses, yet remain somewhat less structured and immobile than crystals. According to Simmons, this basic question about glass materials remains unanswered. “Do they act like solids because they are really solid like most minerals and metals?” notes Simmons,  “Or, do they act like solids simply because they’re very, very slow liquids?”

The goal of the research at Akron is to increase the understanding of glass formation to the point where materials scientists can generate new forms of glass with properties going beyond today’s glass materials. With that level of understanding, the researchers aim to write an algorithm that makes possible the design of glass materials with desired target properties or that meet certain specifications.

In this new project, Simmons plans to investigate biologic processes in evolution as a model for designing the algorithm. Simmons’s lab at Akron studies the behavior of materials at nanoscale levels using simulations of molecular dynamics to better understand the variables behind those dynamics, leading to a more rational control of the properties of nanostructured materials.

The W. M. Keck Foundation funds research in science and engineering with the potential for breakthroughs in technologies, instrumentation, or methodologies. Studies funded by the foundation need to show a high level of risk, due to unconventional methods or because they pose a challenge to prevailing wisdom. Grants are typically $2 million or less, although awards in 2013 are capped at $1 million.

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