Dean’s Catalyst Awards Turn 10

Internal seed funding sprouts collaboration and innovation

By Liz Sheeley

Science can be a risky investment. Large government institutions that hold the purse strings to research dollars want to know their investment is sound. But great scientific ideas don’t always come with a guarantee of success. For a decade, the Dean’s Catalyst Awards (DCAs) have allowed College of Engineering faculty to explore their riskier ideas, and the investment has paid off. The return is nearly ten-fold.

The DCA program recognizes that fields of study within engineering overlap and new perspectives on old problems help move research forward. “The College as a whole is a highly collaborative place,” says Associate Dean for Research and Technology Development Catherine Klapperich (BME, MSE, ME). “And the Dean’s Catalyst Awards program gives faculty that little extra push to reach out to their colleagues and get some of those exciting new areas of work started.”

Established in 2007 by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen, the DCAs reward collaboration and innovation within the faculty. The competitive grant gives projects seed funding for two years to explore new areas of interest that could spark long-term research endeavors and yield new applications across fields. Over the past ten years, almost $2.5 million has been awarded by the DCAs and those projects have seen a return of over $21 million and counting from outside grants. In addition to a monetary return, the Awards have led to the formation of strong bonds between colleagues within the College and across the University.

“The Catalyst program is a spark for new areas of research in the College,” says Klapperich. “We are extremely pleased with the success of the program in terms of collaborative publications and follow-on funding success.”

These engineers and scientists have established long-term working relationships with each other and over half of the collaborations are on-going. One of those successful partnerships is between Materials Science and Engineering Associate Head Professor Soumendra Basu (ME, MSE) and Professor Uday Pal (ME, MSE). The pair won a DCA in 2012 to investigate how a process patented by Pal in 2007 could be used to produce solar-grade silicon. The new technique would not only be environmentally friendly, but also cheaper and faster than the current standard method.

Silicon is found in many every day products, but not as a pure element—it’s actually silicon dioxide, which is the main ingredient in sand. To be used for computer chips and solar cells, silicon needs to be pure. The standard way to purify silicon is done in two separate processes that require a lot of energy and are harsh on the environment because of the use of chlorine. The first process breaks the bonds between the silicon and oxygen, but the resulting silicon isn’t pure enough for electronics. The second, separate process uses chlorine to draw out impurities, but “it’s overkill, and the silicon is a thousand times more pure than silicon needed for solar cell applications,” says Basu. “But there’s nothing in the middle, it’s not like you can stop the process.”

solid oxide membrane-based electroysis
The membrane used in the SOM process is damaged by the flux (a) and a network of cracks is revealed with a scanning electron micrograph (b). After being in contact with the newly engineered flux, the membrane remains undamaged (c) and a scanning electron micrograph confirms this (d). Photo provided by Professor Soumendra Basu

Pal’s patented solid oxide membrane-based (SOM) electrolysis process would allow for the production of solar-grade purity silicon directly from silicon dioxide in a one-step, low-cost process that eliminates the need for chlorine. The solid silicon dioxide is dissolved into molten salt called flux and then heated to over 1,000 degrees to break the silicon-oxygen bonds. A ceramic membrane allows pure oxygen gas to be collected as a valuable byproduct and the resulting silicon is dissolved into liquid tin, again using high temperatures. When the silicon and tin cool, they separate.

“By combining the separation of silicon and oxygen using the membrane and the purification of silicon using the strong temperature dependence of the solubility of silicon in tin, we can produce solar-grade silicon in one step keeping the membrane intact,” says Pal.

One of the biggest challenges is the damage to the expensive ceramic membrane caused by extremely high temperatures and the corrosive nature of the flux. If they can minimize the corrosive attack and prolong the life of the membrane, the cost will decrease and open up the possibility for use in industry. Basu’s expertise in how materials degrade at high temperatures was the perfect match to help solve this problem.

The work is ongoing to study how and why the membrane is destroyed during the purification process and solutions to damper or eliminate the damage are being tested. “We have a theory,” says Pal. “If we can match the basicity of the flux and the basicity of the membrane then we can stop the attack.” They’ve begun testing this theory by adding different compounds to the flux to see if one will create a less corrosive environment for the membrane.

The original DCA award for $45,000 allowed them to verify their idea to use the SOM method to produce solar-grade silicon. “Those feasibility results were subsequently used to attract two additional National Science Foundation (NSF) projects on that topic,” Pal points out. They also led to a new patent application. The two NSF grants totaled $312,000 and that research led to a collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory starting in spring 2018 that could be the first of many.

“The initial investment has different branches,” says Basu. “It’s interesting that what started as the SOM process moved to an emphasis on the membrane interaction with the molten salt to the study of the molten salt itself, and now, using that knowledge to branch out.”

Beyond internal collaborations, one DCA helped two BU engineers lay the groundwork for a $10 million, multi-institutional NSF grant. The DCA allowed Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME) and Assistant Professor Mo Khalil (BME) to explore a topic freely, generate new ideas and innovate beyond their own labs. The grant, called the Living Computing Project (LCP) of which Densmore is the principal investigator, brings together synthetic biologists from BU, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MIT Lincoln Laboratory to study and develop methods to program biological processes that will benefit sectors such as human health and agriculture. Although the research produced during the DCA funding is not a direct link to the NSF grant, the collaboration is. The DCA allowed a way for two scientists from separate fields to think and connect with each other, and established a successful partnership.

“The DCA gave me and Doug a real opportunity to think tangibly about how we can create paradigms of computation in biological systems,” says Khalil. “The LCP grant, which Doug has so deftly championed and led, is a much more expanded form of that, bringing together many of the best synthetic biologists working on different parts and systems under the umbrella of computation.”

What starts as a small seed of an idea can grow far-reaching branches of collaborative work. “We have many, many sub-branches we can start exploring,” says Basu. “And that’s what the DCAs would like to happen.”

This year, the Dean and selection committee chose five projects to fund.

Sustainable IT and IT for Sustainability: Associate Professor Ayse Coskun (ECE), Professor Ioannis Paschalidis (ECE, BME, SE) and Professor Michael Caramanis (ME, SE)

Autonomously Engineering Tough Hierarchical Materials: Professor Elise Morgan (ME, MSE) and Assistant Professor Keith Brown (ME, MSE, Physics)

Novel Insights into Femtosecond Micromachining: Structural Deformations in Graphene for Three-Dimensional Kirigami: Assistant Professor Michelle Sander (ECE, MSE) and Assistant Professor Sahar Sharifzadeh (ECE, MSE)

Understanding Large-Scale Neural Data: Theory, Algorithms, and Experimental Design Insights: Assistant Professor Bobak Nazer (ECE, SE), Assistant Professor Xue Han (BME) and Professor Venkatesh Saligrama (ECE, SE)

Bridging the Gap: Connecting Signaling and Mechanics in Wound Healing: Assistant Professor Allyson Sgro (BME), Research Scientist Jeroen Eyckmans (BME) and Professor Christopher Chen (BME, MSE)