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Research and education success earns more NSF funding

Indispensible in everyday materials, polymers and the field of polymer science and engineering contribute significantly to the U.S. economy. Polymers possess unique properties and processing advantages, which are unattainable in any other material. For these reasons, advances in polymer science and engineering will be critical to meeting the 21st century challenges of energy, sustainability, clean water, food preservation, healthcare, informatics, defense and security.

The Center for Layered Polymeric Systems (CLiPS) program, led by Case Western Reserve University, is rising with the future needs of polymer research.

CLiPS began in 2006 when the National Science Foundation (NSF) accepted its Science and Technology Center (STC) proposal. Earlier this year, the NSF affirmed CLiPS's success and vision when it renewed the award.

These awards are funded in two, five-year increments that, with a successful renewal, total 10 years of funding amounting to a $40 million dollar commitment. Achieving this renewal demonstrates that CLiPS upholds the goals of the STC program: to create integrative partnerships supporting innovative, complex research and education projects, which require large-scale, long-term awards. These grants foster excellence, leadership, and support minorities, all while encouraging risk in the pursuit of knowledge.

"The NSF Science and Technology Center program is about making transformative changes. During the past five years, CLiPS has achieved many significant technological accomplishments", said Eric Baer, CLiPS director, Distinguished University Professor, the Herbert Henry Dow Professor, and founder of the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering at Case Western Reserve.

CLiPS's research pushes the boundaries of a novel co-extrusion process that takes two polymer melts and combines them as two thin, sheet-like layers. The process recombines these layers to create layer-multiples. The multiplicative power allows a researcher to create a polymer film system containing several thousand layers as thin as 8 nanometers.

When polymers are combined using the CLiPS "forced assembly" process, the resulting, nano-scale, multilayered structures possess new and exciting properties. Highlights include applications such as:

  • Tunable, inexpensive "Origami" lasers for applications in medicine, astronomy, communications and imaging
  • Biomimetic, graded-index lenses, imitating the lens of a fish eye, to increase the field of view for cameras or allow enhanced light capturing for solar panels
  • Membranes with unique gas separation and barrier properties for improved packaging that may extend food shelf-life and protect medicines, cosmetics and electronics
  • New capacitor films that more than double current energy storage density
  • Polymer nano-processing that completely does away with toxic and environmentally hazardous solvents for greener and more sustainable production capabilities.

Yet this success alone is not sufficient for a NSF award of this magnitude. CLiPS is also using these multilayered polymers as an opportunity to educate and further develop the American talent pool of individuals trained in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math the STEM pipeline.

An example of CLiPS's educational success is its Polymer Envoys program that supports underrepresented students pursuing science and technology careers. In this program, select high school students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District work side-by-side with graduate students in the laboratory and receive instructional support in math and science.

All of the students who have completed the program are now in college the majority of them are in STEM fields. Due to this success, this program has been expanded to other CLiPS partner institutions.

CLiPS's evolving research has led to a number of patents and two spinoff companies. Advanced Hydro, uses bio-inspired water filtration membrane coatings which have proven to significantly extend the life of traditional membrane-based filtration systems.

PolymerPlus, LLC is using CLiPS-developed processing to make highly sophisticated lenses, which contain a gradient index of refraction. These lenses have improved optical performance, lower weight, and are used in advanced optical devices.

In achieving the funding renewal, CLiPS is well positioned to make its mark on the future and direction of polymer research. "I am looking forward to further developing the legacy of CLiPS over the next five years," Baer said.

Three associate directors assist Baer in his leadership responsibilities by overseeing external affairs, education and diversity, and research. Respectively, they are Kenneth Singer, the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, David Schiraldi, professor and chairman of Macromolecular Sciences and Engineering, and Lei Zhu, associate professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering.

CLiPS focuses on four research thrust areas, all based on the unique polymer forced-assembly process. Leading these areas, from Case Western Reserve, are Joo Maia, Kenneth Singer, and LaShanda Korley who oversee rheology and new processing, optic and electronic systems, and science and technology innovations, respectively. Benny Freeman, from the University of Texas, oversees membranes and transport phenomena.

Contact: Kevin Mayhood
Case Western Reserve University

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