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UB receives $2.4 million grant to develop Earth’s thinnest materials for space tech


The United States Air Force has chosen the University at Buffalo to lead an international effort to leverage the thinnest materials on Earth into space technology.


Funded by a three-year, $2.4 million grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the team aims to design and discover 2D materials, which consist of just a single layer of atoms and are incredibly strong and highly conductive. With the support of Department of Defense research scientists, the team will apply these materials to space applications, from satellite sensors to cosmic radiation shields.


“This project addresses currently unmet needs in space exploration, research and commercialization, while also improving our fundamental understanding of 2D materials’ unique properties and interactions,” said the project’s principal investigator, Paras Prasad, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB departments of chemistry, physics, medicine and electrical engineering, and executive director of UB’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics.


The team will use machine learning — a field of study in artificial intelligence— and quantum mechanical modeling to develop 2D materials and a framework for achieving specific properties. This work will include stacking 2D materials to create heterostructures that will expand the ways that these materials’ optical and magnetic properties can be manipulated.


Researchers will focus on 2D materials that contain ions of rare earth elements known as lanthanide. These include MXenes, carbides and nitrides of transition metals first reported in 2011 whose properties could be used for energy storage, electromagnetic interference shielding and photocatalysis.


The materials’ properties will be tailored to the extreme conditions of space, including the complex electromagnetic environment outside the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere, potentially resulting in materials that redirect electromagnetic fields and protect against ionizing radiation.


Testing of properties will provide insights into how the materials can be used for multiple functions in space, from quantum communications to harvesting high energy radiation for fuel. Space technology must be multifunctional, due to high cost and mass limitations, the researchers say.


“Operations in space require a fundamental reimagining of what we can and need to do with both the electromagnetic spectrum and the radiation environment,” says AFOSR program officer John Luginsland, PhD. “I'm confident that the UB-led, world-class team’s deep research capabilities will lead to new ways to test and evaluate new materials that can exploit physics of the high-energy radiation for advanced space-based sensing, communications and radiation protection.”


Co-principal investigators from UB include Fei Yao, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Material Design and Innovation, a joint program of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences; Mark Swihart, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Vasili Perebeinos, PhD, professor of electrical engineering; and Huamin Li, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering.


Other collaborators represent Michigan State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.


UB and IIT Delhi signed a five-year memorandum of understanding last year to collaborate in areas of emerging technologies, while U.S. and Indian leaders have called for more binational collaboration in space science and technology.


“The U.S. government and the American Association of Universities have each emphasized the tremendous value of deepening scientific research collaboration with India. This award continues UB’s leadership in igniting critical research partnerships with faculty from the best universities in India and elsewhere to push the boundaries of innovation in artificial intelligence, quantum science and other critical fields,” says A. Scott Weber, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.


The award comes as UB’s federal research expenditures have hit an all-time high. For the fiscal year 2023, which ended June 30, UB reported $232 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.


“The upward trajectory of UB’s research enterprise comes after years of strategic planning and investments that has well-positioned UB to becoming one of the nation’s to 25 public research universities,” said Venu Govindaraju, UB vice president for research and economic development. “Awards like this illustrate UB’s leadership in cutting-edge scientific fields that are paramount to addressing society’s most pressing challenges.”

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