Understanding the atomic-scale mysteries of "crushing" chemistry is the goal of an expanding research center with a newly awarded $20 million investment from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).
Managed by Texas A&M University, NSF's Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry (CMCC) will conduct the most rigorous exploration yet into how the mechanical application of force can enable new advances in chemistry, with the potential to make industrial processes cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
The $20 million from NSF is a phase-two award from its Centers for Chemical Innovation program, which supports multiple centers aimed at solving fundamental challenges in chemical research and developing subsequent innovations. The CMCC received a $2 million phase-one award in 2020. The additional funding will enable the center to become a nexus for mechanical chemistry research across the U.S. by supporting work at 11 U.S. institutions, including UC Merced, in nine states.
UC Merced was part of the phase I team, and Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair and Professor Ashlie Martini is the center's associate director. Martini also holds the Monya Lane and Robert Bryant Presidential Chair in Excellence in Engineering at UC Merced.
"Being part of this center is incredibly exciting for our research group because we are the 'mechano' in mechanochemistry," Martini said. "We can bring our expertise in mechanical engineering to an entirely different field to make scientific breakthroughs that are only possible with an interdisciplinary approach."
The work that will be conducted at the center has numerous practical implications. Possible applications of mechanically assisted chemical synthesis range from pharmaceuticals, energy, materials and the environment, Martini said.
Mechanical chemistry, or mechanochemistry, is the crushing of chemicals to produce reactions and substances. It has long been used by chemists and nature alike - for example, diamonds are created when carbon is squeezed under enormous pressure inside the Earth.
While mechanical chemistry has been used to grind out everything from pigments in Renaissance-era paintings to medicinal compounds at the local pharmacy, the atomic-scale processes at the heart of such crushing transformations are not fully understood or predictable.
Moreover, while heat or light are often used to impart the energy needed to make and break bonds in chemical reactions, the use of mechanical force to impart that energy and thus drive new types of chemistry remains an underexplored frontier.
"Using traditional chemical methods, chemists have discovered many effective ways to create substances that have enhanced human health and prosperity - such as the ammonia essential for agricultural fertilizers, which help provide the world's food supply. But such substances could potentially be produced in a more sustainable way through undiscovered techniques of mechanical chemistry," said NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences Sean L. Jones. "NSF's Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry will focus on providing the insights necessary for innovative minds across America to scale it up."
The center itself is being scaled up.
The new funding will provide the center with instruments capable of investigating the effects of mechanical force at the atomic level, including atomic force microscopes, electron microscopes, high-pressure diamond anvils and others.
The center will help grow the scientific workforce through training and mentorship for early-career postdoctoral researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, and will conduct educational outreach activities with local K-12 students and teachers.
For more information, see the NSF announcement.