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Some of the 2021 Materials Research Institute seed grant recipients include, from top left clockwise: Enrique Gomez, Randy Vander Wal, Tak-Sing Wong and Jennifer Gray. Image: Penn State MRI

By Jamie Oberdick

The Penn State Materials Research Institute (MRI) has announced the 2021 recipients of seed grants that will enable University faculty to establish new collaborations with partners outside their own units for exploration of transformative ideas for high-impact materials science and engineering. There are four research themes for the seed grants, with 12 grants totaling more than $500,000 were awarded by MRI in partnership with Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory and the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“The beauty of seed grants is that they challenge our faculty to come up with interdisciplinary projects and approaches,” said Clive Randall, director of MRI and distinguished professor of materials science and engineering. “In addition, these interdisciplinary seed grants always lead to new research insights and foster intellectually progressive thinking of complex challenges.”

The seed grants were awarded to tenured/tenure track and fixed-term research faculty who hold an appointment of half-time or more at any Penn State location, including staff researchers at the Applied Research Lab and Hershey Medical Center.  Time frame for grants is 18 months from date of award, which started in the first quarter of 2021.

The seed grant research themes include:

Sustainability and manufacturing

Topics of interest for this research grant include additive manufacturing, materials characterization, architectural materials and sustainability.

One example of a project in this theme is Enrique Gomez, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering at Penn State, and his team’s project “Recyclable Building Composites.”

Disruptive concepts in materials recycling and circular economy

MRI recently partnered with the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center to initiate new projects with a goal of translating recycling-related technical and expertise into the marketplace to address waste-related problems and to offer solutions.

An example of research in this theme that will be funded by the seed grant is Randy Vander Wal, professor of energy and mineral engineering and materials science and engineering, and his project “Upcycling Plastic Waste to Graphitic Carbons.”

Convergent research at the intersection of materials – life – health – environment

This grant will build on MRI’s success supporting researchers at the intersection of materials science, life sciences, human health and environmental sciences, seeding teams with innovative ideas that include medical and clinical researchers collaborating among Penn State campuses.

An example of a research team funded under this theme is one led by Jennifer Gray, staff scientist with MRI, for her project “New Applications of Automated Data Collection Methods to Materials Science and Life Sciences.”

Humanitarian materials

This grant will fund new projects for both domestic and international populations to leverage materials innovation, characterization, outreach and social good.

An example of work funded by this seed grant is Tak-Sing Wong, Wormley Early Career Professor of Engineering and associate professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering, for his team’s project “Design of 3D-Printed Hierarchical Hygroscopic Matrix for Atmospheric Water Harvesting.”

“Seed grants are critical in helping our research community stretch into new areas,” says Mike Hickner, associate director of MRI and professor of materials science and engineering. “We see new mentoring relationships being cemented, new teams forming, and we’re excited about the interesting ideas that were put forth in this call. This program will certainly bear fruit for Penn State.”