Interdisciplinary Materials Science Program

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Research & Facilities

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Nanoscience and nanotechnology hold great potential for revolutionary advances in biology and medicine. Vanderbilt researchers in the Interdisciplinary Materials Science program are creating new innovations through the use of nanoparticles for research, diagnostics, and therapy. David Wright studies how microbes create inorganic nanomaterials like silica and hemozin using bioinorganic chemistry. Todd Giorgio, David Cliffel, and Rick Haselton lead teams that develop and test novel therapeutic and diagnostic devices based on the unique properties of metal nanoparticles. Hak-Joon Sung focuses on polymeric biomaterials based chemical matrix engineering, cellularengineering, and tissue engineering. Craig Duvall creates stimuli-responsive, bioinspired "smart" polymers for nano-carrier and hydrogel drug delivery. Similarly, Eva Harth's group has created novel polymeric nanoparticles that significantly improve the results of cancer therapies in vivo. The Biomolecular Nanostructures Laboratory and the Nanocrystal Fabrication Laboratories of the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering provide critical space and instrumentation for collaborations that bring together these investigators to advance promise of nanotechnology for addressing medical needs.

Theory, modeling, and simulation

Ahierarchy of state-of-the-art computational approaches and theoretical models, ranging from molecular dynamics of atoms to time-dependent density functional theory simulation of electrons and ions, are used to describe, understand,
and design materials. Modeling and simulation are indispensable tools in nanoscale science and engineering and a major focus area in the materials program at Vanderbilt. Using these tools, researchers find links between the electronic, optical, mechanical, and magnetic properties and the size, shape, topology, and composition of nanostructures to further the impact of nanoscale research on technology and society. For example, consider the vast design space for exotic thermoelectric materials, which span the range of semiconductors including compound semiconductors. Then add the complexity of tuning the transport properties by nanostructuring these materials as superlattices, nanocrystalline composites, and skutterudites. Atomistic and quantum simulations help downselect promising materials based on fundamental physical quantities, and complex designs can be analyzed and optimized to help guide experimental investigations. Results of these types of studies have led to orders of magnitude improvement in performance, which promises to revolutionize how society collects, processes, and utilizes energy. Research at Vanderbilt also focuses on detailed studies of hybrid organic-inorganic monolayers used to lubricate nanostructures, transport in quantum dots used for solid-state lighting, self-assembly of lipid bilayers used to understand cell transport properties, design of active cellulases used to increase the efficiency of bio-fuel processing, and much more.


Students and faculty in the optics group seek to understand how light interacts with matter and how this interaction can guide the development of materials with novel optical properties and functionalities. Research in the group is primarily focused on nanoscale materials in which reduced dimensionality offers new freedom to control light-matter interactions. Areas of concentration include: nanoporous materials for chem-bio sensing and hybrid silicon components for on-chip optical signal modulation (Weiss), ultrafast spectroscopy, phase-change materials, and plasmonics (Haglund), and metamaterials, reconfigurable photonic materials, and energy conversion (Valentine). Given overlapping interests and complementary capabilities, collaborations both within and outside of the group are common, offering students a chance to work with faculty and fellow students from multiple disciplines. Members of the group frequently use the facilities of VINSE and the Center for Nanophase Materials Science at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gaining valuable hands-on experience designing, fabricating, and characterizing nanoscale materials. The optics group provides students with research opportunities at the forefront of nanoscale optics, developing the next generation of materials and devices for controlling and harnessing the flow of light.


Energy is the most pressing challenge facing America's prosperity and security in the coming century. Energy is also a global issue; solutions for clean energy must be found as growing economies expand and developing countries seek to improve their quality of life. A new NSF TN-SCORE block grant supports energy research at Vanderbilt. The work focuses on solar energy conversion, energy storage, and energy efficiency. Examples of research being conducted include novel approaches to fuel cells, the implementation of biological photosystems in biohybrid solar cells, graphene as a novel electrode material in solar cells, nanocrystal-sensitized solar cells, white-light emitting nanocrystals for energy efficient solid state lighting, and optical metamaterials for enhancing efficiency in solar cells.


Semiconductor science and technology are ubiquitous in modern civilization. It is also clear that spectacular new developments in the semiconductor area will continue to drive the global economy. Researchers at Vanderbilt are working at the forefront of this vibrant field involving semiconductor materials fabrication, characterization, and modification. Areas of emphasis include studies of semiconducting nanocrystals, a novel material whose optical properties and electronic structure may be tuned for light harvesting in photovoltaic devices, ultra-fast dynamics of carriers and phonons at surfaces and interfaces, and spin phenomena in semiconductor heterostructure systems. Additional research focus includes graphene-based systems, effects of ionizing radiation on microelectronic devices and materials, nanoscale thin film and surface-interface science of semiconductor nanostructures, and radiation effects on semiconductor devices. Major research areas also include optical properties of materials at the nanoscale for applications in biosensing and light emitting diodes (LEDs), nonlinear laser interactions with nanostructured materials, microscale energy transport in semiconductor devices designed for energy conversion, and the synthesis of carbon nanotubes and graphene by chemical vapor deposition methods and characterization of their optoelectronic properties.

Materials Research

Materials research involves constructing structure-property- processing relationships in order to develop new materials and optimize the performance of existing materials. These structure-property-processing relationships apply to all material classes including metals, ceramics, polymers, composites, and electronic materials and become increasingly important for materials at the nanoscale. The Vanderbilt Interdisciplinary Materials Science (IMS) faculty represents a diverse group of scientists with expertise in modeling and simulation (Pantelides), atomic scale materials characterization using electron microscopy (Wittig), chemical processing (Lukehart and Harth), and innovative development of new nanoscale materials systems (Laibinis and Sanchez). Many IMS faculty members have strong collaborations with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that provide access to some of the fastest computing systems in the world, sub-angstrom resolution aberration-corrected electron microscopy facilities, and world-class staff scientists. Vanderbilt offers graduate students outstanding opportunities to perform cutting edge research using state-of-the-art facilities by combining the resources at Vanderbilt with opportunities to perform research at ORNL that include the Center for Nanophase Materials Science.


Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE)

In addition to collaborative research that crosses boundaries of academic disciplines within Vanderbilt, the IMS program partners with the Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE). VINSE is a university institute focused on new science and technology based on nanoscale materials. The institute carries out frontier science and technology by teaming locally and globally, and providing an environment where physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers may collaboratively solve forefront problems and create new scientific understanding. VINSE researchers inspire students by creating an atmosphere of excitement and creativity. It functions as an interdisciplinary
center, eliminating traditional disciplinary boundaries and enabling a new paradigm for research and innovation. Click here for listing of VINSE facilities

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