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Ajayan wins two MURIs

ajayanmuri2011_01A Rice University laboratory has won two Department of Defense research grants to create novel materials from two-dimensional elements and to build structures in three dimensions using carbon nanotubes. 

Pulickel Ajayan, Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, is the principal investigator on the two Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grants announced along with 25 others April 22. 

He is the only researcher in the nation to win two MURI grants this year. 

Ajayan expects each grant to be worth approximately $7.5 million over five years, though funding details are yet to be determined. Funds will be shared with partner institutions on the two projects. 

“These are very good and important programs for universities,” said Ajayan, who will lead a MURI for the first time, although he has been part of several MURI-funded studies. “They’re well-funded, they focus on basic, interdisciplinary research and the PIs get enough funding to allow us to do really good science. Typically these programs have synergistic efforts in experimental and theoretical methods, and the end results are quite significant.” 

The Army Research Office has commissioned Ajayan’s project titled “Atomic Layers of Nitrides, Oxides and Sulfides” with Pennsylvania State, Florida State and Southern Illinois universities listed as partners. Ajayan and his team will build on their expertise in synthesizing such layered structures as graphene to create two-dimensional sheets of layered nitrides, oxides and sulfide materials. 

“The question is, can we make atomically thin layers from three-dimensional materials using the approaches people have already developed for graphene and such other 2-D structures as boron nitride, or do we need innovative techniques to accomplish this?” Ajayan asked. “For nitrides, oxides and sulfides, this is unexplored territory, and I think a lot of exciting things will happen. We’re at the tip of the iceberg.” 

The other grant, for a project titled “Synthesis and Characterization of 3-D Carbon Nanotube Solid Networks,” springs from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. “We will build three-dimensional structures using mainly nanotubes, but also a lot of other nanostructures,” Ajayan said, noting the agency’s interest in thermal, electrical and porous nanomaterials for a variety of applications. 

“Even for simple things like scaffolds, you have to have the right kind of architecture,” he said. “Because these are very tiny objects, we can’t just use them like Legos. We have to figure out the right kind of conditions to grow them or, like nature, build things layer by layer.” 

Partner institutions are Pennsylvania State University, the University of Delaware and the University of Texas at Dallas.  

The Department of Defense expects to award $191 million over five years to the winners of this year’s grants. Nineteen institutions were named to lead MURI initiatives. Rice was one of seven to win a pair.  

“MURIs are an important vehicle for engaging the brightest researchers on ideas with major impact for the department,” said Zachary J. Lemnios, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, in a DOD news release. “These projects constitute significant investments in multidisciplinary research with the potential for making rapid progress in cutting-edge science.” 

Ajayan got the good news via email from Ned Thomas, the newly appointed dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, while attending his daughter’s performance in an Indian classical music festival in Cleveland on the Friday before Easter.  

Ajayan said, “He sent a note saying, ‘Congratulations for winning the 3-D MURI.’ A few minutes later, he sent another saying, ‘Oh, boy, you won two!’ So for me, that was a good Friday.” 

—Mike Williams, Rice Public Affairs 

Read more about the program in the DoD news release.

Read more about Ajayan's research.