Polymer engineer receives NSF CAREER Award to study the mystery of glassy materials


Why can some materials act like solids without crystallizing?

This question – the central issue in the study of the “glass transition” – is one of the longest standing and most technologically important problems in materials science and soft matter physics. Dr. David S. Simmons, an assistant professor in the Department of Polymer Engineering at The University of Akron, has been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study this problem. Success of this project will accelerate the development of materials with the potential to improve human health, enable a cleaner domestic energy economy, enhance the lightness and durability of auto and aircraft components, and broaden the versatility of electronics and solar cells. 

Understanding the glass transition

Simmons’ project, “Glass formation in strongly interacting polymers — predictive understanding from high-throughput simulation and theory,” will employ computer simulations and theoretical approaches to understanding the glass transition in strongly interacting polymers. Because these polymers contain powerful electrostatic and hydrogen bonding interactions at the molecular level, they are leading candidates for next-generation materials needed to enable transformational technologies such as flexible solar cells, stable next-generation batteries and room-temperature stable vaccines.

“A predictive understanding of the glass transition in strongly interacting polymers would enable material scientists to rationally design polymers with extraordinary properties from first principles,” says Simmons. “This would enable us to move beyond the trial-and-error design that dominates in the absence of fundamental understanding.”

Early support from Keck Foundation

Simmons’ CAREER project will leverage powerful new capabilities in computer simulation of the glass transition developed during his first four years at UA – advances catalyzed by a research grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation supporting the use of genetic algorithms to ‘evolve’ and understand polymers with unique, ‘extreme’ glass formation behavior.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award recognizes faculty with exceptional potential as both transformational researchers and outstanding educators.

In combination with his research, this $475,000 grant will support Simmons’ outreach activities advancing a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) pipeline guiding outstanding students into STEM careers. These activities include expansion of a program offering paid research internships to Akron Public Schools high school students, engagement of undergraduates in laboratory research, and coordination of 3+2 B.S./M.S. programs for students focused on STEM careers.

To learn more, visit the Simmon’s Research Group online.

Dr. David Simmons

Dr. David Simmons