This special issue in Advanced Materials on materials research at Rice University is a cross-cut of some of the exciting work being done that is responsible for the distinction Rice has earned in the field of materials science. Coincidentally, this year Rice University will be celebrating her centennial anniversary. Cushioned in the center of Houston, the world's energy capital, and adjacent to the world's biggest concentration of healthcare establishments, Rice has been consistently ranked among the best colleges in the nation – both as an elite undergraduate institution with a unique residential college system and as a highly regarded research institution. Rice is one of the top 20 ranked US universities (US News and World Report) and is in the top 10 in endowment per student for private universities. Chartered in 1891 by the Massachusetts businessman and philanthropist William Marsh Rice, Rice officially came into existence in 1912 as the Rice Institute, and began with a batch of 77 students and a dozen faculty members. At the onset of her second century, Rice, with strength of 3900 undergraduates, 2600 graduates, and about 780 faculty, is poised as one of the leading research universities in the nation with strong roots in undergraduate education.
Rice has grown in size and prestige during the first one hundred years, and has one of the lowest undergraduate tuition rates among the top private colleges in the US. Rice is located in the heart of Houston, a city of nearly 2.1 million people, presently fourth largest in the nation (Figure 1). Rice has had a close association with NASA and space exploration for decades; indeed, Rice was the venue for President John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech announcing the nation's intent to land man on the moon. The extensive oil and gas industry located in the Houston area is now accompanied by broad interests in other energy sources. The campus is next to the largest healthcare complex in the country enabling strong engagement with the medical community in collaborative biomedical research.
During the last quarter of her past century, Rice emerged as a top-ranked research institution. Among the several attributes that helped gain this distinction were the materialization of nanotechnology in the early 90s and Rice's early involvement in the area, especially the pioneering work that led to the discovery of C60 (fullerenes). Rice faculty Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, along with Harry Kroto who was visiting Rice during the key experiments that lead to the discovery, were awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1996 (Figure 2). This was a turning point at Rice, leading to new efforts in science and engineering with expansion into areas including nanotechnology, information technology and high performance computing as well as biotechnology with many interdisciplinary efforts spanning departments and schools.
Materials science research at Rice has a long history, spearheaded in the early years by Franz Brotzen, who came to Rice in 1954. By 1966/67 there was a formal program in Materials Science in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Materials Science department. Presently the core materials science program is part of the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science department with six faculty members. Of course, as the nature of the field has changed from the early emphasis on metals, materials science research is spread across the Schools of Natural Sciences and Engineering with major significant research in several departments including electrical and computer engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, as well as physics, chemistry and biochemistry and cell biology, with high impact work in fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, graphene, catalysis, environmental technologies, energy storage, composites, nanoparticles for cancer and bioremediation, plasmonics, nanoelectronics, tissue engineering, energy and environment research. As a crowning achievement, in 2010, the Times Higher Education, a British publication for professionals in education and research, ranked Rice number one, among universities engaged in research in materials science, based on the number of citations per paper published during the period of 1999–2009, underscoring the importance of materials research conducted at Rice over the last decade.
Several centers and institutes contribute significantly to the growth of specific research areas related to materials. The NSF-funded Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) was among the first of the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers established by NSF nationwide. The center has served as a backbone for interdisciplinary nano-bioresearch focusing on materials and a large number of educational and outreach programs. The center is a leading place in the nation in understanding toxicology of nanomaterials and has a strong program in the use of nanomaterials for environmental applications. Another center promoting campus wide interdisciplinary biomaterials research and training at Rice is the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB), fostering ties with the Texas Medical Center and with industry. The strong impact of Richard Smalley and the long term vision for the key role of nanomaterials in energy and water research lead to the founding of the Smalley Institute (SI). The SI acts as a catalyst for bringing together researchers in science and engineering for development of a wide range of materials, especially carbon based nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene for applications.
In this special issue on materials science at Rice, many of our colleagues provided articles in a mix of areas in specific topics selected so that these reflect the breadth of materials research taking place on campus and that we feel will excite and engage the broad range of readers of Advanced Materials. Several of the articles in the issue are co-authored by Rice faculty reflecting how materials research has become a truly multidisciplinary effort in today's academic research environment. In this issue, carbon nanotubes, graphene, and other two-dimensional atomic layers, metallic nanowires, metamaterials – focusing on mechanical behavior, optical materials and plasmonics, tissue engineering, phase stability in strongly correlated materials, atomic scale modeling and computational materials science are highlighted. Theory, derived from physics and quantum chemistry and empowered by high-performance computer technology, spearheaded at Rice by the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, contributes to the “materials genome”, the realistic modeling and prediction of fundamental material behavior that can lead to new technologies.
Both of us (the guest editors of this issue) are relatively new to Rice, having joined in 2007 (Ajayan) and 2011 (Thomas) and both of us coming to Rice from large materials science and engineering departments (RPI and MIT). We are pleased that Advanced Materials accepted the proposal to publish a special issue with focus on materials research at Rice University and are especially thankful to editors Eva Rittweger and John Uhlrich for making the issue a reality and all their hard work in guiding the set of articles for the issue. We would also like to thank all our fellow Rice authors who have contributed and worked hard to make this issue a success. We find research in materials science at Rice pervades most departments and disciplines in the science and engineering schools and acts as a common thread that has helped to bring together and unify faculty members on topics of great technological challenge. The words of Eiji Kobayashi, senior advisor of National Panasonic, are highly appropriate for the guiding research in the next century not only at Rice but at every leading research university, whether the focus is on energy or the environment or human health: “those who control materials control technology.”