Montana State University

MSU researcher wins major award to develop tools for exploring tiny world

June 2, 2017 -- By Evelyn Boswell for MSU News Service

Erik Grumstrup, recipient of a Department of Energy early career award, is pictured in his laboratory at Montana State University in Bozeman. The double-exposed photo reveals light emitted by a laser, used for testing solar cell materials. MSU photo illustration by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN -- Erik Grumstrup explores a world where electrons play bumper cars with atoms and change occurs in less than a millionth of a billionth of a second.

Science fiction it's not, but it is the science of materials. And exploring that tiny world is necessary for making cell phones, solar cells and computers more efficient, says the Montana State University researcher who just received a major award to invent new tools for the task.

Grumstrup, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, is one of eight people in the nation to receive a 2017 Young Investigator Award from the Arnold O. and Mabel Beckman Foundation. The award gives him $750,000 over four years, allowing him to develop an instrument for examining nanomaterials in new ways and to hire more help in his laboratory.

"It's really quite an opportunity. I'm excited," Grumstrup said.

More than 300 people applied for the Young Investigator Award, which supports the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences. The recipients, in addition to Grumstrup, work at Stanford University, Cornell University, UCLA, the University of New Mexico, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Washington. The foundation provides grants to researchers and nonprofit research institutions in chemistry and life sciences to promote scientific discoveries, and particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments, and materials that will open up new avenues of research.

"We are excited to support these amazing researchers," said Anne Hultgren, executive director of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in a press release. "The foundation is committed to helping launch our next generation of talented scientists by giving them the funding and flexibility they need to pursue novel areas of study that have the potential for revolutionary breakthroughs."

Grumstrup earned his Ph.D. in 2011 from the University of Colorado Boulder and came to MSU in 2014. He was the first hire for the Materials Science Graduate Program, which is a Montana University System collaboration involving MSU, Montana Tech and the University of Montana. During his first year at MSU, he won an early career award from the U.S. Department of Energy, giving him $750,000 over five years to understand materials that might reduce the cost of solar cells and make them more efficient.

"An interesting thing about the Beckman award is that it tends to fund projects that are risky and have real potential to transform chemistry, biochemistry, and biomedical fields," Grumstrup said.

Explaining risk in chemistry, he said, "Basic research is intrinsically risky. We are trying to generate new knowledge and learn about the world around us. That is incredibly hard. There is always some element of risk. Things don't turn out as you expect."

No one has developed the instrument he is planning, Grumstrup said, so he expects to encounter challenges in engineering.

"Nature has a tendency to surprise us,” he said. “It's important that we be careful in how we try to understand it so we don't get tricked."

The new instrument wouldn't have been possible to build five years ago, but recent discoveries in laser technology paved the way, Grumstrup said. The instrument, like one he uses now, will incorporate lots of lasers and mirrors, but it will allow him to ask new questions. He expects it to open up new avenues of research.

His Beckman project will take a slightly different approach than his lab now uses to investigate the interactions between electrons and atoms, Grumstrup said. The electrons in his research carry electricity through materials that have the potential to be used in cell phones, solar cells and other technology. In the process, the electrons collide with atoms that make up that material and cause the atoms to jiggle.

"That interaction between electrons and jiggling atoms is fundamentally important to efficiency in almost every electronic device that you and I interact with on a day-to-day basis," Grumstrup said. "It determines how efficient solar cells are. It determines how efficiently your computers operate."

The Beckman award will allow him to develop new tools to investigate what happens in nanomaterials in less than a millionth of a billionth of a second.

"It turns out those time scales are important for how well your cell phone works," Grumstrup said. "It's remarkable."

Four graduate students and three undergraduates currently work in Grumstrup's laboratory. With the Beckman Young Investigator Award, Grumstrup said he hopes to hire two more graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher.

Mary Cloninger, head of MSU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said Grumstrup is well deserving of the prestigious award.

“My colleagues and I have recognized for some time now that Erik is an extremely talented and creative assistant professor, and we are thrilled that the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is recognizing and fostering his highly ambitious research program,” she said. “Erik’s research program is at the cutting edge of materials science and the Beckman Young Investigator Award brings visibility and prestige to his research group that he richly deserves.”

The Young Investigator Program is one of several programs offered by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. Ten MSU alums participated in the Beckman Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to advance the education, research, training and personal development of undergraduates majoring in chemistry, biochemistry and the biological and medical sciences. MSU was selected to participate in that program in 2004 and 2007.

Contact: Erik Grumstrup, erik.grumstrup@montana.edu or (406) 994-2988

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