Two CCB faculty earn competitive MURI awards

February 27, 2020
This image has two photos: on top is Kang-Kuen Ni in her lab with two students and on bottom is Daniel Nocera standing in a greenhouse

Kang-Kuen Ni and Daniel Nocera will lead cross-institution teams to develop novel technologies like quantum computers and next-generation diving suits


The Department of Defense recently announced the winners of their 2020 Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program. The agency received 365 proposals and awarded just 26 grants. In a rare feat, they selected not one but two faculty members from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology—Daniel Nocera and Kang-Kuen Ni—to lead multi-disciplinary teams in designing the next generation of military and commercial technology. 

“Modern science and engineering problems often intersect more than one scientific discipline,” said Dr. Bindu Nair, the Deputy Director for Basic Research at the Department of Defense, in a press release. Multidisciplinary effort, he continued, "accelerates research progress to enable more rapid R&D breakthroughs by cross-fertilization of ideas, and can hasten the transition of basic research findings to practical applications.”

Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy, will use his MURI to work on oxygen harvesting and storage in the ocean. For example, if a diver descends into the deep sea with a limited amount of oxygen, could a tool let her extract oxygen from the surrounding waters and stay down there longer?


A photo of Professor Daniel Nocera standing behind a plant in his lab
Daniel Nocera is a veteran inventor. He created the first artificial leaf, which performs photosynthesis ten times better than any real leaf, a bionic leaf that creates potent fertilizer as a by-product and, most recently, a bio-fertilizer that prevents chemical runoff while growing bigger, healthier plants. 


The answer will be yes if Nocera's team achieves their goals. But they'll have to solve multiple engineering problems along the way, so Nocera sought out experts in electrocatalysis, reaction kinetics, biomimicry, porous materials and gas sorption, polymeric membranes, anti-biofouling and anti-infectious materials and theory, computation and modelling of materials composition and kinetic to build his team. One of those experts, Jarad Mason, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, is just down the hall.

If successful, the expert crew could design technology to harvest pure oxygen from undersea environments of different temperatures and depths. Ultimately, their work could help create the next generation of diving suits capable of extracting and storing oxygen mid-dive.

Back on land, Kang-Kuen Ni, the Morris Kahn Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and of Physics, will work on a problem of precision. A pioneer of ultracold chemistry, Ni has used colder and colder temperatures to forge molecules from atoms that would otherwise never react. Cooled to such extremes, atoms and molecules slow to a quantum crawl, their lowest possible energy state. There, she can manipulate molecular interactions with utmost precision. Recently, her lab performed the coldest chemical reaction and saw, for the first time, a slowed-down version of two molecules breaking and forming bonds. 


A photo of Kang-Kuen Ni standing behind machines that glow green and tangled wires in her lab
Kang-Kuen Ni stands behind a different kind of greenery in her lab where she achieves ultra-precise control over ultracold atoms and molecules. Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard Photographer


With her MURI, Ni has formed a team of experts from chemistry, quantum information, precision measurement and physics to take this work further and achieve the same level of control over molecules as she has over individual atoms. With that power, she could investigate how specific molecules behave in the quantum realm, which could lead to far more sensitive sensors, processors and transducers, advanced material science and drug design. And, her team's work will add more rungs on the ladder to quantum computers.

Previously, the MURI helped launch technologies like laser frequency combs—now the gold standard in frequency control for precision in navigation and targeting—atomic and molecular self-assembly projects, which advanced nano-manufacturing, and the entire field of spintronics.

This year's 26 winning teams earned an average of $7 million for their five year research projects. Nocera and Ni's teams include collaborators from nine different institutions including Harvard.