Molecular engineering scales up to lab-wide research enterprise
The Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) is expanding its multi-pronged pursuit of foundational science enabling globally significant technological solutions at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.
The institute was founded in 2011 as a joint endeavor between the University of Chicago and Argonne. Since then, most of Argonne’s IME activity centered around basic materials science. Now, led by its new director Seth Darling, IME@Argonne will integrate molecular engineering research across the laboratory. Darling will be working closely with Matthew Tirrell, Argonne’s deputy laboratory director for science and the Pritzker Director of the IME at the University of Chicago.
“The IME@Argonne is stepping into a new phase in which we are engaging the entire breadth of the laboratory, from fundamental science to applied science and engineering,” Darling said. “Together with our partners at the University of Chicago, we are poised to deliver breakthrough science and engineering that makes the world a better place.”
The expanded enterprise will focus on four principal themes, each addressing science and engineering at the scale of molecules: materials for water (such as the oil-soaking Oleo Sponge), quantum information and technology, soft matter and energy storage. Each theme leverages existing strengths and unique capabilities at Argonne, Darling said.
“The first three topics are established programs within the IME here at the laboratory, while energy storage is a relatively new venture for us in which the IME seeks to complement Argonne’s broader program, exemplified by the Argonne Center for Collaborative Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) and the Joint Center for Energy Research (JCESR) hub, with new molecular engineering concepts,” he said.
Argonne employees conducting research full-time within the IME@Argonne program are Wei Chen, Joe Heremans and Marco Govoni. These staff join their colleagues from the University of Chicago to perform joint research under the overall IME umbrella. Darling called the trio “trailblazers in what we hope will continue to evolve into a thriving program centered around molecular engineering at Argonne.”
“Wei brings key skills in polymer synthesis and advanced characterization of soft matter. Joe is an expert in quantum information and Marco’s computational expertise impacts water research and beyond.”
Wei Chen, an assistant chemist in the Materials Science Division (MSD), joined Argonne as a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) in 2010. He joined MSD as a staff scientist two years later.
Coming from a chemistry background, Chen expects to learn a lot of physics and engineering as he begins to interact more with colleagues from other fields. “That will be challenging for me working within the IME program, but that also brings us a lot of opportunity,” he said.
Two words summarize his research: “smart surface.” The smart behavior manifests as an automatic response to external stimuli such as temperature, salt concentration or the application of an electric or magnetic field to generate a special property or new functionality.
His research starts with the precise synthesis of polymeric materials for potential applications in water treatment membranes, nanophotonics and flexible electronics.
Working in collaboration with Matthew Tirrell and Juan DePablo at the University of Chicago, Chen designs special polymers that combat fouling, which degrades water system components. The work is based on zwitterionic polymers, a special class of biocompatible and environmentally friendly materials.
“Zwitterionic materials are well-known for their superior anti-fouling properties and have been broadly used to construct anti-fouling surfaces for medical devices, biosensors and marine coatings,” Chen said.
Chen also is developing nanocoatings for anti-reflective and anti-fingerprint touchscreens. “We aim to replace currently used inorganic anti-reflective coatings with our proposed organic nanocoatings to reduce costs and manufacturing complications,” he said.
A former Argonne postdoctoral researcher, Marco Govoni became involved in IME research after becoming an assistant scientist in MSD in 2017.
Govoni develops and maintains quantum simulation computer codes to help design advanced materials for renewable energy, water and quantum information technologies. These codes are heavily based upon the laws of quantum mechanics, which govern the behavior of subatomic particles.
“I find it very rewarding when the software that we designed to crunch numbers on the latest generation of supercomputers plays a key role in research papers,” said Govoni, whose work includes use of the Mira supercomputer at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF).
Govoni develops predictive modeling techniques based on first principles numerical simulations; this means that all ingredients of the method are calculated from the material’s elementary atomic structure. This approach helps Govoni and his colleagues answer complex questions and understand the behavior of matter under different conditions.
“With decades of successful applications, high-performance computing is building toward a revolution in predicting and designing the fundamental properties of materials from numerical solutions of the basic laws of quantum mechanics,” Govoni said. “Predicting materials for energy and quantum information, where a quantum mechanical description of matter is key — and where a tight connection exists between laboratory experiments and numerical simulations — will greatly help the design of advanced materials for technology.”
Govoni routinely finds himself balancing several multifaceted tasks that call for a diverse skill set.
“This job is at the crossroads between physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics and data science,” he said. It requires him to interact with researchers who have different backgrounds. “It’s definitely a learning opportunity, and it’s also essential in order to find solutions in this field.”
Joe Heremans joined Argonne nearly two years ago as an assistant staff scientist. He originally came to the IME at UChicago in 2013 after completing his doctorate in David Awschalom’s research group at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “He gave me an opportunity to help design and build a new lab from the ground up, as well as diversify scientific avenues,” Heremans said of Awschalom, now the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at UChicago and a senior scientist at Argonne.
“At UCSB, I ended up working a lot with electrical engineers, materials scientists and physicists, which pushed the scientific creativity and led to a really dynamic environment,” he said. “The idea of joining the Institute for Molecular Engineering appealed to me, as it was designed to be a similar interdisciplinary scientific community.”
Heremans appreciates Argonne’s open, collaborative atmosphere, noting that he has already enjoyed fruitful collaborations with colleagues in MSD, the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division, CNM and the Advanced Photon Source (APS). Further, he noted, “The IME@Argonne is a fantastic link to the IME at UChicago, which allows for interactions with graduate students on a number of interesting scientific challenges.”
Although most fully engaged in quantum information and technology research, Heremans is also cultivating an interest in how the material systems and quantum defects that he works with could play a role as nanoscale sensors in the water initiative and in energy storage. The potential applications of this technology are diverse, ranging from quantum information processing and secure communication to nanoscale sensing and biological sensing.
CNM, APS and the ALCF are all DOE Office of Science User Facilities. Argonne researchers should contact IME-Argonne@anl.gov for more information.
The fundamental science programs within the IME@Argonne are funded primarily by Basic Energy Sciences, a program of the DOE Office of Science.
Photo: (From left) Marco Govoni, Joe Heremans and Wei Chen are the first three Argonne staff researchers who work full-time on projects for the new Institute for Molecular Engineering at Argonne (IME@Argonne). IME@Argonne Director Seth Darling calls the trio “trailblazers in what we hope will continue to evolve into a thriving program centered around molecular engineering at Argonne.”