Posted in | Nanomaterials

MSU Researcher Wins Major Award to Build Tools for Examining Nanomaterials

Erik Grumstrup studies a world where electrons act like bumper cars with atoms and change happens in less than a millionth of a billionth of a second.

Erik Grumstrup, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, has been selected as a 2017 Beckman Young Investigator by the Arnold O. and Mabel Beckman Foundation. (Credit: Montana State University)

Sounds like science fiction, but it really is the science of materials. And exploring that miniature world is essential for making cell phones, computers and solar cells more efficient, says the Montana State University Researcher who recently won a major award to invent new tools for the mission.

Grumstrup, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, is one of eight people in the country to receive a 2017 Young Investigator Award from the Arnold O. and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The award offers him $750,000 over four years, allowing him to build an instrument for investigating nanomaterials in new ways and to employ more assistants in his laboratory.

It's really quite an opportunity. I'm excited.

Erik Grumstrup, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, MSU's College of Letters and Science

Over 300 people applied for the Young Investigator Award, which supports the most promising young faculty members in the initial stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences. The recipients, besides Grumstrup, work at Stanford University, UCLA, Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of New Mexico and the University of Washington. The foundation offers grants to Researchers and nonprofit research institutions in chemistry and life sciences to encourage scientific discoveries, and chiefly to foster the invention of materials, methods and instruments, that will pave the way towards new research.

We are excited to support these amazing researchers. The foundation is committed to helping launch our next generation of talented scientists by giving them the funding and flexibility they need to pursue novel areas of study that have the potential for revolutionary breakthroughs.

Anne Hultgren, Executive Director, The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation

Grumstrup received his Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of Colorado Boulder and then went to to MSU in 2014. He was the first hire for the Materials Science Graduate Program, which is a Montana University System collaboration involving MSU, the University of Montana, and Montana Tech. During his first year at MSU, he won an early career award from the U.S. Department of Energy, awarding him $750,000 over five years to study materials that might decrease the cost of solar cells and make them more effective.

An interesting thing about the Beckman award is that it tends to fund projects that are risky and have real potential to transform chemistry, biochemistry, and biomedical fields. Basic research is intrinsically risky. We are trying to generate new knowledge and learn about the world around us. That is incredibly hard. There is always some element of risk. Things don't turn out as you expect.

Erik Grumstrup, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, MSU's College of Letters and Science

So far no one has created the instrument he is envisioning, Grumstrup said, so he anticipates a few challenges in engineering.

"Nature has a tendency to surprise us,” he said. “It's important that we be careful in how we try to understand it so we don't get tricked."

Five years ago, this new instrument would not have been possible to construct, but latest discoveries in laser technology facilitated the opportunity, Grumstrup said. The instrument, like one he currently uses, will include many mirrors and lasers, but it will allow him to examine new questions. He hopes that it will open up new doors of research.

His Beckman project will take a somewhat different approach than his lab currently uses to examine the interactions between atoms and electrons, Grumstrup said. The electrons in his research convey electricity via materials that have the potential to be used in solar cells, cell phones and other technology. In the process, the electrons bump into atoms that make up that material and cause the atoms to jiggle.

"That interaction between electrons and jiggling atoms is fundamentally important to efficiency in almost every electronic device that you and I interact with on a day-to-day basis," Grumstrup said. "It determines how efficient solar cells are. It determines how efficiently your computers operate."

The Beckman award will enable him to create new tools to examine what happens in nanomaterials in less than a millionth of a billionth of a second.

"It turns out those time scales are important for how well your cell phone works," Grumstrup said. "It's remarkable."

Four Graduate Students and three Undergraduates presently work in Grumstrup's laboratory. With the Beckman Young Investigator Award, Grumstrup said he plans to hire two more Graduate Students and a Postdoctoral Researcher.

Mary Cloninger, Head of MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said Grumstrup is well justified of the prestigious award.

“My colleagues and I have recognized for some time now that Erik is an extremely talented and creative assistant professor, and we are thrilled that the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is recognizing and fostering his highly ambitious research program,” she said. “Erik’s research program is at the cutting edge of materials science and the Beckman Young Investigator Award brings visibility and prestige to his research group that he richly deserves.”

The Young Investigator Program is one of several programs provided by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. Ten MSU alums took part in the Beckman Scholars Program, which offers scholarships to promote the education, training, research and personal development of Undergraduates majoring in Biochemistry, Chemistry, and the Biological and Medical Sciences. MSU was chosen to participate in that program in 2004 and 2007.

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