UW News

August 3, 2018

UW, PNNL to host energy research center focusing on bio-inspired design and assembly

UW News


The United States Department of Energy has awarded an expected $10.75 million, four-year grant to the University of Washington, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and other partner institutions for a new interdisciplinary research center to define the enigmatic rules that govern how molecular-scale building blocks assemble into ordered structures — and give rise to complex hierarchical materials.

The Center for the Science of Synthesis Across Scales, or CSSAS, will bring together researchers from biology, engineering and the physical sciences to uncover new insights into how molecular interactions control assembly and apply these principles toward creating new materials with novel and revolutionary properties for applications in energy technology.

“This center seeks to understand the fundamental rules of how order emerges from the interaction of simple building blocks,” said CSSAS Director François Baneyx, the Matthaei Professor and Chair of the UW Department of Chemical Engineering. “What are the energetics, rates and pathways involved, and what properties emerge when simple components come together in increasingly complex layers? Those are some of our driving questions.”

The UW-based CSSAS is among the newest members of the Energy Frontier Research Centers announced June 29 by the Department of Energy. These centers, operated out of universities and national labs, are funded by the Department of Energy and devoted to specific goals in energy science. The work at the CSSAS will focus on understanding the principles of “hierarchical synthesis” — the process by which molecules come together, bind, interact and create layer upon layer of higher-ordered structures.

Microscopic image of proteins assembling into potentially useful structures.

The initial stage of the assembly of protein building blocks (left) and a self-assembled peptoid sheet (right). Scale bars indicate length in nanometers.Jim De Yoreo/Chun-Long Chen

CSSAS experiments will focus on protein-based building blocks, but will also probe protein-like synthetic compounds called peptoids as well as inorganic nanoparticles. Studying the biologically inspired assembly of these systems individually and in combination will shed new light on how living organisms, through billions of years of adaptation and evolution, have created complex hierarchical systems to solve a host of challenges, said Baneyx.

Understanding hierarchical synthesis would allow engineers to design and build new materials with unique properties for innovative technological advancements that can come about only when scientists exert precise control over a material. For example, controlling how charges move precisely through a material — or how a substrate is shuttled between the active sites of a series of enzymes positioned with nanoscale precision — could be key to creating new materials for energy storage, transmission and generation. The precision control that scientists envision could also yield functional materials that are self-healing or self-repairing, and have other custom physical properties designed within them.

“Scientists have been trying to create these types of innovative materials largely through ‘top-down’ approaches, and often by reverse engineering an interesting biological material,” said Baneyx. “We will begin with the blocks themselves, exploring how order evolves in the synthesis process when the blocks are put together and interact.”

CSSAS research will focus on three major areas:

  • Investigating the emergence of order from the interactions of individual building blocks, be they peptoids, inorganic nanoparticles or protein-based particles
  • Probing how hierarchy unfolds as these building blocks are combined to construct lattices, active structures and hybrid materials
  • Using machine learning, computational simulations and big data analytics to learn new ways to control the assembly dynamics of hierarchical structures

CSSAS_goalsThese investigations will build upon work conducted at the UW Institute for Protein Design, led by UW biochemistry professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator David Baker, and harness the expertise of researchers at the University of Chicago, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of California, San Diego.

The CSSAS effort was enabled by the Northwest Institute for Materials Physics, Chemistry, and Technology, or NW IMPACT, which was formally launched earlier this year by UW President Ana Mari Cauce and PNNL Director Steven Ashby to fertilize cross-disciplinary collaborations between UW and PNNL researchers. NW IMPACT co-director Jim De Yoreo, who is the PNNL chief scientist for materials synthesis and simulation across scales and also holds a joint appointment at the UW in both chemistry and materials science and engineering, will serve as the deputy director of the CSSAS.

“This center’s focus is ultimately on unlocking potential,” said Baneyx. “Once we understand the fundamental rules governing the assembly of bioinspired building blocks, we will be able to design new materials to meet a broad range of technological needs.”


For more information, contact Baneyx at 206-685-7659 or baneyx@uw.edu and De Yoreo at 509-375-6494 or james.deyoreo@pnnl.gov.