Awards Database

Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2012

Geoffrey R. Hutchison

University of Pittsburgh

Molecular Piezoelectrics: Building Responsive Electromechanical Materials From the Bottom Up

Hutchison’s research combines theory and experiment across several areas of organic (carbon-based) electronic materials and nanoscience, the study of matter at very tiny scales. (One nanometer equals one-millionth of a meter. Matter and energy behave differently at the nanoscale.) Hutchison said he became interested in nanoscale science and technology as an undergraduate, when he read legendary physicist Richard Feynman’s 1959 Caltech lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Hutchison said he also realized fairly quickly that, “as we reach working micro- and nanoscale devices, the question of energy and power to run small, self-contained devices is critical.” He specializes in developing new materials, as well as functional microscale and nanoscale devices. He and his research team focus on building electronic materials from molecular subunits. They use a variety of techniques, including chemical synthesis, theoretical modeling and computer simulation, to design materials with desirable electronic properties. As a teacher Hutchison addresses both theory and experiment. He is developing new, interactive software to train research students in the fundamentals of science computation. (In chemistry, theorists increasingly use powerful computer programs to predict how atoms and molecules may behave in newly created materials.) His work in this area also helps more junior students understand the nature of scientific research. Hutchison received the Cottrell Scholar Award (CSA) based on his peer-reviewed proposal that included both research and teaching projects. His CSA science project is aimed at designing new piezoelectric materials. (A piezoelectric substance is one that produces an electric charge when a mechanical stress is applied to it.) He aims to do this by working from “scratch,” as it were, using basic scientific principles, including those of quantum physics, to assemble chains of piezoelectric molecules that can be incorporated into “thin-films.” Thin-film technology, basically material that is only a few molecules thick, is currently used in electronic devices such as batteries, computer chips and solar panels that generate electricity directly from sunlight. Hutchison’s CSA teaching project is aimed at developing computer modeling programs to encourage science students to develop critical-thinking abilities, rather than to rely on rote memorization to pass tests. “Computer simulations and modeling offer an important avenue toward fostering problem-solving, creative inquiry and ‘what-if’ experiences for undergraduates,” he said. “Today’s students are also highly computer literate and have high expectations of software interactivity based on their experiences with video games and instant messaging.” Hutchison and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh designed and began programming Avogadro, an open-source, freely available molecular modeling and visualization tool. He added that Avogadro is unique in its focus “around a highly interactive, intuitive program with the core goal of allowing students to easily build molecules, make free-form modification, and receive continual feedback.” “While my group and myself contribute about half of the current development effort, the Avagadro community has exploded with over 14 volunteer programmers worldwide, over 200,000 downloads, and translations into more than 20 languages,” Hutchison said.

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