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Dr. Allyson Fry-Petit On New Materials Research Guided By Data Mining

Last week I had the opportunity sit down with Dr. Allyson Fry-Petit. Professor of inorganic solid state chemistry at California State University Fullerton to discuss the research her team is doing with new materials design. The Fry-Petit lab spends a lot of time researching the underlying atomic structures of materials. “So I’m using data mining to help us try and really understand why some materials form certain structures and not others, and really the reason behind it that allows us to control what properties we see. If we understand why certain things form interesting structures or just run of the mill structures then we can better design future materials.”

The lab has 3 core objectives:

1) create correlation diagrams of Structure-Property relations to influence new material synthesis.
2) Synthesize and probe the properties of new materials within systems of interest.
3) Continue the development of methods used to probe the structure of materials.

These three objectives are focused primarily on polar, luminescent, and ionic conducting materials.

The applications of this research are extremely broad and all-encompassing in our modern society. Almost all forms of technology, electronics, computers and cellphones utilize materials developed in the field of solid state chemistry “…everyone has seen light emitting diodes, those are Christmas lights, and actually in the state of California all public lights now have to be LED source or phosphor source, and so we research phosphors to try and improve efficiency and decrease energy usage. The polar materials have a wide variety of usage, polar materials are used in ferroelectric RAM in your computers, in your cell phones, they’re used in sonar applications, defense purposes or even ultrasound for medical purposes. The ion conducting materials are a broad group of materials which some could be used for energy storage like a lithium ion battery or we’re also interested in what’s referred to as oxygen transport membranes which are being used to look at the movement of oxygen either for the purification of air into oxygen or in solid oxide fuel cells which are allowing us to move oxygen across a membrane while we burn a fuel that’s not petroleum based. Tons of energy applications! You’d be hard pressed to find an area of study that’s not using solid state chemistry. “

Dr. Fry-Petit’s lab uses “Thermolyne” muffle furnaces from “Thermo Fisher Scientific” that reach temperatures of up to 1200 degrees Celsius to initiate reactions between oxides and carbonates. “we grind them up in a mortar and pestle so they are really close to one another, and then when we heat them up, it’s [hot] enough that atoms from one compound will diffuse to the other and vice versa, to a point where everything is completely uniform.”

The end products are unique compounds that are probed and studied in order to better understand how molecular structures relate to favorable properties. This information, along with data mining, create “correlation diagrams” that are used to guide the focus of research. “This idea of using correlation diagrams, and our ideas with data mining is unique because in the fields of solid state before, we had necessarily the same computational tools. The way we would approach research is we would say “oh, I’m interested in lead based compounds”, and then you would employ 15 grad students and you would say “each of you go and make 20 things and see if we find one thing that’s interesting”, but that’s a problem for a lot of reasons. One, it’s expensive. Two, it’s not environmentally friendly, it’s a ton of wasted materials, it’s a ton of wasted energy, and we know that we work at high temp so anytime we can put our bets in the right place and say there’s a high probability this reaction is going to lead me to something I’m interested in, we’re doing something better for the field. Instead of this dart board approach that was the old guard, myself and others in my generation are interested in how we refine this process, before we’re using materials and energy to create them.”

Dr. Allyson Fry-Petit offers this advice to any future students interested in Materials Science and solid state chemistry:

“I was willing to try parts of math and science that weren’t what everyone else was looking at, for instance I was really interested in geometry in high school, I use geometry literally every day in my research and that’s not what everyone else was focusing on. When I started my postdoc, Tyrel Mcqueen [Director, PARADIM Bulk Materials Synthesis and Discovery Facility] looked at me and said, “do you know any coding? This project you’re going to be working on requires some coding.” and I said “I don’t know any, but I’m willing to learn and I taught myself enough coding to do my research. I tell all of my students that I advise, learn coding, because if you learn coding, you can get a job in any of the up and coming industries. But that’s not what they were telling us when I started college. I realized that I do not like organic synthesis. I didn’t want to spend all day making solutions, but I like making new things, and this is a perfect example of doing something different then what people think of as chemistry. I don’t make solutions; I heat up rocks, and make new rocks, and that’s awesome! It’s completely outside of the box, it was not anything anyone around me in my family understood when I started college. I found my own niche that fit me, because science is so broad, there’s so many ways you can go with it and you don’t’ even realize.”

You can find more information about Dr. Allyson Fry-Petit and her work on her Lab website