Carl Zeiss Foundation promotes inverse design of new materials at Mainz University

JGU research group at the cutting edge between soft and hard matter and between theory and practice receives EUR 1 million


As part of the Carl Zeiss Foundation excellence program, scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Germany, will receive EUR 1 million over the next four years to promote research in the field of materials science. The group of researchers led by Professor Claudia Felser currently works on the targeted technique known as 'inverse design' of technologically interesting materials with defined properties. This involves theoretical modeling of the materials under development. These materials include glass, semi-conductors, and polymers - all of which are already a main focus of the research being carried out at Mainz University. One new feature of the research association is its systematic approach: It is usually the case that materials with interesting properties - such as superconductivity or specific optical characteristics - are discovered by chance. The inverse design concept turns this traditional approach, i.e. the material being known and its potential properties being computed, on its head: According to the inverse approach, the desired properties are specified first and the appropriate material is then designed at the molecular and/or electronic level. "This method has now become practicable as the necessary computer resources are available all over the world," explains Professor Felser. "There are also technological advantages as we can now design materials on the computer and thereby save resources and reduce costs."

The prerequisites for successfully setting up the required research structures are outstanding in Mainz. There are on-going interdisciplinary joint projects between theoretical and experimental work groups within the JGU Research Center Complex Materials and the Graduate School of Excellence "Materials Science in Mainz" (MAINZ), sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG). They cooperate in the fields of both hard and soft matter. The JGU Research Unit Computer-based Research Methods in the Natural Sciences also helps building bridges here.

Moreover, these research activities are intended to promote the transfer of technologies between Mainz University and major enterprises in the near vicinity such as Schott, IBM, and BASF, and to help establish international networks. There are already successful cooperation projects with IBM and Schott in the field of computational design. Both enterprises are explicitly integrated into the research association. In February 2010, Mainz University was awarded IBM's Shared University Research Award for its successful design of new materials for solar cells. The IBM-sponsored computer cluster used to generate simulations forms an important basis for the project. Business partners and JGU professors are to jointly provide support to Ph.D. students in future in order to facilitate knowledge transfer at the interface between university and industry. Coordinated networks, professional technology transfer, and joint research projects will guarantee the continuous exchange of insights and the rapid application of research results. Futhermore, the internationally eminent U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory is also involved in the project in the person of Professor Alex Zunger. It was Zunger, awardee of the Gutenberg Lecture Award 2009, who originally came up with the idea of using inverse design to create new semi-conductor materials.