Monthly Update From the Vice Provost for Research and Economic Development


NSF Awards $467,000 to U of A Physicists for Black Phosphorous Study

Hugh Churchill, assistant professor of physics, directs the Quantum Device Laboratory at the U of A. Photo by Russell Cothren, University of Arkansas
The National Science Foundation has awarded $466,954 to University of Arkansas physicists to study the ultra-thin material black phosphorous for its potential use in fiber-optic communication.

Black phosphorous, which can be thinned down to a single layer of atoms, is an ultra-thin semiconductor has the potential to power optoelectronic devices, which use both light and electricity. Some current optoelectronic devices are solar cells and light-emitting diodes, better known as LEDs.

“Black phosphorous exhibits strong potential for applications from thin-film electronics to infrared optoelectronics,” said Hugh Churchill, an assistant professor of physics and the principal investigator on the project.

The research will shed light on the long-term potential for a new kind of optoelectronic device that would feature an optical switch – the kind needed for fiber-optic communication – in which electricity could control light. Such a switch may be smaller, faster and more energy-efficient than current technologies.

Churchill and Salvador Barraza-Lopez, an assistant professor of physics serving as co-principal investigator on the project, will model and observe the behavior of excitons in black phosphorus.

New Analysis in Science Finds Evolution Follows Genetic Path of Least Resistance

Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor of anthropology. Photo by Russell Cothren, University of Arkansas
Evolution follows the path of least resistance, which can result in suboptimal physical traits that don’t ideally match the functional need, according to a new analysis by U of A anthropologist Peter Ungar.

Ungar, Distinguished Professor, chair of Department of Anthropology and director of the environmental dynamics doctoral program at the U of A, detailed his findings in Science this month with co-author Leslea Hlusko, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Paleontologists typically reconstruct past behavior by assuming that function follows form,” Ungar said. “We need to look at things in a different way and consider the number of genetic steps it takes to get from one anatomy to another. There can be more than one function for a given form and different forms can serve the same function.”

Ungar analyzed teeth from two human ancestors with similar dental and jaw structure and found that dental anatomy historically associated with a hard food diet was used to eat mainly plant-based diets. And while the two species had similar anatomies and teeth, their diets were different.

Chemist to Use NSF Grant to Study Plants-as-Biofuels Roadblock

Feng Wang, assosiate professor of physical chemistry. Photo by University Relations
A U of A chemistry professor has received a $400,000 award from the National Science Foundation to investigate a roadblock in the harvesting of biomass from perennial plants for the purpose of creating a source of renewable energy.

“Biofuel derived from perennial plants, such as grass and common weeds, is most desirable because these plants grow on marginal land and can be harvested repeatedly,” said Feng Wang, associate professor of physical chemistry. “But first we have to solve the problem of breaking down cellulose fibrils before biomass can be considered an economically viable source of renewable energy.”

Cellulose fibrils are microfibers of inert carbohydrates within plants. They give wood its durability, for example. Through a process known as pretreatment, chemists separate these fibrils into individual carbohydrate chains that can be digested by enzymes. This process takes a long time, but Wang and other chemists are studying ways to speed it up.

Wang will develop computer models of cellulose fibrils to help scientists understand how they interact with water, alternative solvents and enzymes. His and other models will also lead to the design of catalysts for the pretreatment and hydrolysis of biomass.

U of A-Affiliated Technology Company Gets Boost from NSF

Surftec co-founders Samuel Beckford (left) and Min Zou discuss their research. Photo by University Relations
The National Science Foundation has awarded $225,000 to start-up company SurfTec LLC to commercialize its patent-pending technology invented at the University of Arkansas.

SurfTec, a U of A-affiliated company at the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, will use the grant to investigate the feasibility of a novel approach that significantly improves wear resistance of polytetrafluoroethylene coatings.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is better known by its trademarked brand name: Teflon. SurfTec will show that its nano-coating technology – a thinner and more durable version of Teflon – will reduce friction and wear in manufacturing equipment, according to company co-founder Samuel Beckford.

Beckford, as a graduate student at the U of A, invented the patent-pending PTFE nanoparticle composite coating with SurfTec co-founder Min Zou, professor of mechanical engineering.

Initially, the coating will be tested as a lubricant in ball bearings for electric motors that are frequently washed with caustic cleaning solutions. SurfTec’s product is expected to increase the wear-life of ball bearings by 50 percent compared to grease-lubricated bearings.




Vice Provost for Research and Economic Development
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The following is a sampling of the top grants awarded to faculty and staff in June, with the principal investigator, the award amount and the sponsor. An asterisk (*) indicates the continuation of a previous award.

  • Roger Koeppe II, $1,534,944, Arkansas Biosciences Institute
  • Denise Airola, $999,928, Arkansas Department of Education
  • Brajendra Nath Panda, $312,779, National Science Foundation
  • Jackson Cothren, $104,865, U.S. Army Research Office
  • Michael Hevel, $70,000, National Academy of Education