A New PARADIM in Crystal Growth

By Arthur Hirsch

Johns Hopkins University is establishing a cutting-edge crystal growth facility as part of a national research project meant to revolutionize technology used in consumer products, industry, and medicine, the National Science Foundation announced recently.

Johns Hopkins, Cornell, Princeton, and Clark Atlanta universities form a team of institutions that the agency chose for a $25 million program over five years. The new effort, dubbed PARADIM—Platform for the Accelerated Realization, Analysis, and Discovery of Interface Materials—is one of the first awards under NSF’s new Materials Innovation Platforms program. The facility will join the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute, the Institute for Quantum Matter, and the Institute for NanoBioTechnology in bolstering Johns Hopkins’ status as a national leader in materials research.

“Materials science is the basis for so much of what we have accomplished technologically—computers, superconductors, advances in medical imaging, and even our space program,” says facility director Tyrel M. McQueen, associate professor in the Krieger School’s Department of Chemistry and Department of Physics and Astronomy, with a joint appointment in the Materials Science and Engineering Department in the Whiting School of Engineering. “Future technologies will also depend on making new materials with new properties—we need better materials for catalysts and batteries, for example, and better materials for medical implants.”

As part of PARADIM, Johns Hopkins will receive $4.8 million to establish a bulk crystal growth facility, which McQueen will direct. Scientists will develop their capacity to discover new materials and coax them into growing as large crystals suitable for fundamental studies and technological applications.

A key part of the Johns Hopkins crystal growth facility will be a new piece of laboratory equipment now being custom built in Germany. Called an optical floating zone furnace, the contraption—a bit larger than a household refrigerator—will be the first of its kind in the United States, allowing scientists to make materials that have never been made before. The machine will allow researchers to put materials under enormous pressure—up to 300 times normal atmospheric pressure and 30 times the pressure possible at furnaces now in use at Hopkins. Crystals will be grown in the presence of gases that have liquid properties.

A second furnace is to be equipped with an X-ray computerized tomography, or CT, scanner, which will allow researchers to watch crystals as they grow.

McQueen says the new instrumentation will sharply cut down on the trial and error usually involved in crystal growth, vastly improving production speed. Now, he says, it takes one to three days to grow a pinky-sized crystal “if you know how to do it. … If you don’t know how to do it, months.” The laboratories will be open to researchers from universities around the country, who will be taught the new techniques.
Stay tuned: In a coming issue, Arts & Sciences Magazine will run a more in-depth feature about the role of the Krieger School in materials science.