Anatoly Frenkel Receives NSF Grant

International Research Project Will Study Electromechanical Actions

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Dr. Anatoly Frenkel

Dr. Anatoly Frenkel, co-chair of the department of physics, has received a three-year grant of $447,438 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study how to create a new class of what are called “electrostrictors.” These materials experience strong deformation (known as electrostriction) when an electric field is applied to them.

The project, titled “Origin of Large Electromechanical Response in Non-Classical Electrostrictors,” will be an international effort, with Frenkel collaborating with Professor Igor Lubomirsky from Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. The international component of the project will allow the investigators and their respective team members to travel between the United States and Israel to conduct joint research.

The primary challenge in studying electrostriction is understanding what is happening to the materials at the atomic level. In 2012, researchers blended two rare earth metals – gadolinium and cerium – and applied them in a thin film to the materials they wanted to study.  Because of the qualities of the two metals, they were able to take an atomic snapshot of the mechanical action created by an electric field by using high-energy X-rays generated from a synchrotron.

This research opened a whole new avenue for investigating electrostriction. As Frenkel explained, “With this new grant supporting our respective groups at Yeshiva and Weizmann, we hope to be able to propose new types of electromechanical materials that will surpass existing electrostrictors in the size of the effects and stimulate new technologies that utilize them.”

Electrostrictors are important technological materials. Some common examples of electrostrictors in action are actuators for portable cameras (which provide autofocusing and image stabilization), transducers for audio-speakers and sonar, and tactile sensors in robots. They can even be used in micro-electro-mechanical systems, whose dimensions are in the micrometer scale. (A micrometer is one millionth of a meter.)

Two students worked with Frenkel on this project and helped prepare materials for the proposal that was approved for funding. Alyssa Lerner ’15S noted that “conducting research with Dr. Frenkel helped me develop skills like computational analysis and critical thinking, which are essential in any scientific field. The hands-on experience gave me a better understanding of how the scientific community operates, helping me make more informed career-related choices as I continue to advance my education.”

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Renee Zacharowicz ’16S

Renee Zacharowicz, who will be graduating this year with a major in biology and minor in computer science, has worked with Frenkel on several projects and finds him extremely committed to collaborative work. “I gained a tremendous amount from my experience in Dr. Frenkel’s lab and I greatly appreciate his guidance and mentorship.”

Frenkel is very gratified to receive this support from the NSF. “This grant is a culmination of my 10-year collaboration with Professor Lubomirsky, in which we combined our efforts to understand the origin of such strong mechanical effects at the level of just a few atoms. We can now look towards designing a new class of premier electromechanical materials.”