Brian Collins working with student the labBrian Collins, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, has received one of only 59 national Early Career Research awards from the U.S. Department of Energy for 2017. Around 700 scientists from across the country applied for the award.

The five-year, $750,000 grant will support Collins and his team of graduate and undergraduate students in their research developing and testing new resonant X-ray scattering techniques that reveal how organic, carbon-based molecules assemble, orient and conform into nanostructures.

The information they gather could help improve the design and performance of organic polymers: flexible, stretchable, biocompatible electronic materials which could be used to make everything from printable solar cells to brain implants that restore movement to paralyzed limbs.

Brian Collins
Collins

“The techniques we are developing enable us to see organic nanostructures at a scale we otherwise would not be able to see,” Collins said. “The information we gather will provide new insights for designing more powerful and efficient organic electronic devices from the bottom up.”

Revealing organic nanostructures

Organic molecules can be made into inexpensive and conductive plastics called polymers. One reason organic polymers aren’t widely used is because they don’t perform as efficiently as their silicon-based counterparts. In order to make these materials more competitive, scientists need to develop a better understanding of organic polymers’ nanostructures.

The DOE Early Career Award will enable Collins and members of his WSU research group to investigate how organic molecules assemble into nanostructures using the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. The Advanced Light Source is the only instrument in the world capable of performing the novel X-ray scattering technique Collins uses for his research.

“With our new ability to probe both polymer properties and nanostructure, it will be possible to tune materials for optimal performance in an array of novel technologies, Collins said. “I am grateful for the opportunity the DOE has provided me to conduct this research.”

Photo at top: WSU physicist Brian Collins and physics graduate student Thomas Ferron perform optical and electronic measurements on their organic polymer devices. 

By Will Ferguson, College of Arts and Sciences