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UT Austin establishes Texas Materials Institute

     The University of Texas at Austin has established the Texas Materials Institute (TMI) to pool the resources of its best materials faculty. The institute brings together some of Texas' most creative technical talent to invent and enhance products ranging from components for large-scale machinery to tiny biodegradable structures that help heal the body.

     The institute will operate under both the College of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences in order to share personnel, equipment and expertise. Pairing the colleges provides more than 50 materials faculty, including eight faculty who are members of the prestigious National

     Academy of Engineering and one member of the National Academy of Science.

     “Materials research today is creating a revolution in electronics, chemistry, medical technology, and many other areas,” said UT President Larry R. Faulkner. “Our concentration of talented faculty members and students combined with the outstanding resources of our Colleges of Engineering and Natural Sciences offers an excellent opportunity for The University to be a leader in this field.”

     The multi-disciplinary capabilities of TMI is one if its most important aspects. "Contemporary research must now combine knowledge from areas as diverse as chemistry and computer engineering, which on the surface seem to be unrelated,” notes the institute director Dr. Don Paul, the Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering at UT.

     “For example, UT chemists and chemical engineers recently stunned the semiconductor industry when they developed a new material that can be used to shrink computer chip circuit sizes by two-thirds.”

     Dr. Paul is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and has taught at the University of Texas since 1967. His research in polymers has had considerable impact in both fundamental science and technological applications; Dr. Paul has received numerous awards for his teaching, research, and professional leadership. He has directed the Center for Polymer Research for the past 17 years.

     “Don Paul was the overwhelming choice of the materials science faculty to head the new institute,” said Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “He is extremely well-qualified for the job in every way – he is a superb materials scientist/engineer, an able administrator, and a visionary leader.”

     Dr. Paul foresees that research within the institute will focus on structural materials, polymeric materials, electrochemical and photochemical processes, microelectronics materials, strongly correlated electron systems, and a number of other areas.

     “I am very excited about the prospects for TMI,” Dr. Paul said. “We have an outstanding group of faculty and graduate students whose research is at the forefront in an array of different areas.”

     “Materials research is the foundation for many industries,” he said. “The offshoots that TMI fosters can sprout in several directions.”

     One important role of TMI is to help prepare students for a future that will demand multi-disciplinary solutions.

     “Much of the technological progress we expect in the 21st century will involve creative use of new materials and combinations of materials,” said Dr. Ben G. Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering. “We are fortunate to have outstanding faculty in these programs at UT, and this institute will allow them to work cooperatively on research and teaching.”

     Among the faculty contributing to the institute will be National Academy of Engineering member Dr. Grant Willson. It was a team led by Willson, a professor of chemical engineering and chemistry, that developed a new polymer film to coat silicon chips and allow manufacturers using their standard manufacturing technique of photolithography to shrink circuit sizes far beyond predicted capabilities.

     Today's chips have circuit structures as small as 0.25 micrometers wide. A micrometer is about one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair. The polymer developed in Dr. Willson's lab promises structures just 0.08 micrometers wide.

     This development could postpone, well into the next century, the expensive retooling chip manufacturers have been anticipating and save the semiconductor industry billions of dollars. The achievement was possible not only because of the collaboration between graduate students in both chemical engineering and chemistry, but because of close work with the Austin-area chip manufacturing industry.

     A recent breakthrough in battery technology provides another example of the expertise drawn together in the new institute. Dr. Arumugam Manthiram, associate professor of materials science, determined how to effectively replace the expensive and toxic cobalt component of lithium batteries with cheaper and environmentally friendly manganese. Up to now, the manganese oxide cathode in rechargeable lithium batteries had not performed well. Its charge capacity faded upon recharging.

     A third example of the talent at TMI is chemical engineer Dr. Joel Barlow who successfully used a scanned laser sintering technique to make artificial bones and teeth from a calcium phosphate material. His materials show promise for replacement parts that the body accepts with little rejection.

     These projects represent a small fraction of the work conducted by the faculty collaborating in the new institute.

     “Materials research can have substantial dividends in the long run for Texas and national industry. We hope that the seeds planted now will mean future economic well being,” Dr. Paul said.