Montana State University

MSU professor named fellow of the American Physical Society

November 3, 2015 -- Mike Becker for the MSU News Service

Tim Minton, professor of chemistry at Montana State University, has been elected a fellow of the American Physical Society. MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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A Montana State University professor’s research into what happens when things collide — at the atomic level — has earned him prestigious recognition from the American Physical Society.

Tim Minton, a professor in MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science, was named a fellow of the American Physical Society in early October.

Only about half a percent of the society’s members are honored each year with the title of “fellow,” Minton said. Criteria for the fellowship include “outstanding physics research, important applications of physics, leadership in or service to physics or significant contributions to physics education.” Minton’s area of expertise is chemical physics, which is at the interface of chemistry and physics.

Minton joined the MSU faculty in 1995 after six years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he began looking into the topic that has become the chief focus of his research career: spacecraft materials and their durability.

“In the case of low-Earth orbit, the goal is to understand the reactivity so we can design materials that are more durable in space,” he said. “We direct beams of atoms or molecules at surfaces and observe how they or their reaction products scatter from the surface.”

Monitoring things like the angle at which the molecules scatter and their velocities can reveal details about the individual collisions and even the materials involved.

“If you can understand the nature of the localized region where the collision takes place, that gives you information about the structure of the surface,” Minton explained.

Minton is particularly interested in liquid surfaces, which are dynamic and can’t just be observed even with a high-tech microscope. Studying liquid surfaces can lead to a better understanding of their interactions with gases. How gases stick to them, react with them and dissolve in them is important in atmospheric chemistry, gas separation membranes, and chemical synthesis, Minton said.

Minton recalled that at Jet Propulsion Laboratory the work was very project-oriented; he didn’t get the chance to delve deeply into research subjects. MSU suited him, he said, because the academic environment lets him pursue the scientific questions that interest him — plus there’s the opportunity to teach. Besides his regular coursework, Minton’s research group typically comprises five to eight undergraduate and graduate students.

“I’ve had a lot of amazing students in the last 20 years,” he said. “The interaction with students was an unexpected benefit of the move to academia because my original motivation was to focus more on my research.”

Mary Cloninger, head of the chemistry and biochemistry department, said Minton is an impeccable scientist whose sophisticated lab and area of research has the potential to get students excited about the field.

“It’s a wonderful resource for the department and all of MSU to have researchers who are internationally recognized scholars here,” she said. “It gives the faculty and students and the community the opportunity to learn and be a part of something really exciting. I think that’s part of what his fellowship recognizes.”

The American Physical Society is a non-profit organization working to advance and share the knowledge of physics through research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy and international activities. The society represents more than 51,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories and industry in the United States and throughout the world. 

Contact: Tim Minton, (406) 994-5394 or tminton@montana.edu