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Focus On the Small Has Big Potential for Energy and Health Care

Posted by on Thursday, September 17, 2009 in Fall 2009, Sidebar.


Peter Cummings may know the roads between the Vanderbilt campus and Oak Ridge National Laboratory better than he knows his own neighborhood. Cummings divides his work and time between the two institutions 170 miles apart, focusing on fundamental research in two areas with enormous potential: energy and cancer.

At the same time, as the principal scientist at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at Oak Ridge, Cummings leads planning of the research agenda for a team of 95 researchers and support staff. The center is a U.S. Department of Energy/Office of Science Nanoscale Science Research Center.

And there’s more. In April 2009 the White House announced the establishment of a new multimillion-dollar Energy Frontier Research Center at Oak Ridge. The Fluid Interface Reactions, Structures and Transport (FIRST) Center is one of two planned for the facility. Cummings, the John R. Hall Professor of Chemical Engineering at Vanderbilt, now serves as a member of the FIRST leadership team and as a co-principal investigator. “The center represents an important investment in the basic research that will underpin new energy sources, energy storage methods and energy production techniques,” Cummings says.

The technology projects share a core intent. “The work we’re doing to understand what happens at the interfaces of different materials is crucial to a huge range of energy problems,” Cummings says. “Our work is not very applied—we’re working at a level that focuses on understanding very fundamental things that can lead to completely new energy technologies.”

Part of Cummings’ research focuses on developing theories that will become design tools for molecular electronic devices, which have the potential to replace silicon in future computer chips. Current chip manufacturing methods, based on lithographic etching of silicon, have enabled computer speeds to double every 18 months by carving ever smaller computing elements into the silicon. These methods will reach their limit in the next decade or two, when the etched structures will be too small to be stable.

“With molecular electronics, instead of trying to etch features into silicon, you make devices using a bottom-up technique called self assembly, with computing elements consisting of single molecules,” Cummings says. “Our goal is to understand how bottom-up self assembly works and can be controlled.”

Understanding from the bottom up is also at the core of Cumming’s cancer research. With colleagues in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s cancer biology department, Cummings upends the traditional model of understanding cancer at the tumor level and instead predicts tumor behavior by understanding and modeling how individual cells within the tumor move and interact with each other and their environment.

Using computer modeling, the researchers focus on the point at which cancer begins to move around the body. “We’re trying to understand how the properties of cells and nature of the environment impact whether a tumor will become invasive or not,” he says.

“Philosophically at the root of everything I do is the idea of understanding large, complex entities by understanding how the component entities move and interact with each other and their environment.”