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Penn State President Eric J. Barron and representatives from the University of Freiburg

A new strategic partnership between Penn State and the University of Freiburg in Germany will propel the development of a new class of engineered living materials with potential applications in sustainable infrastructure, robotics technologies, and next-generation medical care. This will enable the institutions to compete globally on ambitious and innovative work that neither institution could accomplish alone. Today, July 24, Penn State President Eric J. Barron and representatives from the University of Freiburg announced this new partnership to work together in key strategic areas. This partnership integrates key pieces of Penn State’s strategic plan, including enhancing health and stewarding our planet’s resources.

The universities have historically deep collaborations in the fields of energy, water, climate, forestry, biomaterials, philosophy and global health, and will continue to build in these areas. Now, this new initiative, the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems, will take the partnership to the next level and engage faculty at both institutions to design sustainable materials inspired by biological principles.

At Penn State, Clive Randall, director of the Materials Research Institute, and Tom Richard, director of the Institutes for Energy and the Environment, are spearheading the novel program, asking faculty to be bold and intellectually brave in exploring disruptive research that could make a significant difference for society at large.

“Global engagement is one of the foundations of Penn State’s strategic plan, and this newly envisioned partnership provides an important platform for our teams to think beyond borders,” said Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones. “This allows faculty to put forth courageous proposals that may include development of materials that can harvest energy from and adapt to their environments and repair damage through self-healing mechanisms.”

The new initiative leverages complementary resources and areas of research at the two institutions. Penn State brings a breadth of expertise in functional materials, novel processing and energy-related research, and the University of Freiburg is recognized as a leader in bio-based materials, polymers and electrochemistry. The partners share a common philosophy and practice of tackling large-scale science and engineering problems using transdisciplinary approaches. Together, the institutions are building on their history of graduate student exchanges through the vision set forth by Rob Crane, interim vice provost for Global Programs at Penn State, who is a strong believer in the ideals of transforming Penn State into a truly global university.

One area for collaboration, with many possible applications, is the development of materials that are responsive to their environment. This could include the façade of a building, actuated by heat, humidity and/or light, that would then adapt to aid cooling and heat management. Such a design might be “bio-inspired” by the way a sunflower tracks the sun or a pine cone opens in dry conditions and closes when the air is humid. Other forms of hybrid inorganic/living materials being envisioned might be used for wound healing, surgery, prosthetics and robotics, and would feature the ability to self-heal and to interface with living tissues.

The initial investment will provide funding to build the center via three primary tactics:

  • Prestigious research exchange programs open to undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and faculty.
  • Interconnected seed grants to encourage activities between research collaborators, with the potential for enhancement programs for the most promising research.
  • Shared access to specialized research equipment and facilities at each partner institution.

The program will be managed jointly between Penn State’s Materials Research Institute and Institutes for Energy and the Environment in partnership with the University of Freiburg LivMats Centre of Excellence. A search for a director will soon commence.

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