Western Goes East for 2014 MRS Fall Meeting

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Materials Research Society Meeting

November 30, 2014 to December 5, 2014

Boston, Massachusetts


Kyle Simpson

SPS Chapter:

 The poster sessions were quite popular, with over 3,000 posters presented in the six days of the conference, mostly by graduate students.

This year I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to travel from Western Michigan University (WMU) to Boston, Massachusetts for the Fall 2014 Materials Research Society Meeting. My fellow travelers were Bob Makin and Nathaniel Feldberg, two graduate students, and our advisor Steven Durbin. Our group uses molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) to make high purity earth abundant semiconductors that have photovoltaic and power electronic applications, and all of us were very interested in the semiconductor portions of the conference, as well as various related and unrelated fields. Robert and I left Kalamazoo early in the morning the day prior to the conference and arrived late in the evening, spending much of the day on the road traveling throughout the states.

The Materials Research Society conferences are some of the largest in the world in the field of materials science. This year’s fall meeting featured approximately 3,300 oral presentations and nearly 3,000 poster presentations over the course of six days, and it was impressive. I walked into the convention center and my eyes began to widen as I walked through the conference halls. People dashed about, preparing each day before the conference started at 8:00 am. The conference paused for dinner at 5:00 pm each day, and then resumed for a poster session from 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm. Six days of 12 hours each made for 72 total conference hours, equal to three days of straight conference.

My eyes widened further at the rich collection of knowledge that surrounded me in the rooms and halls, the diversity of researchers from Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada, Poland, India, China, and other countries, presenting their latest research, learning from each other’s work, and collaborating. There was a great presence from the younger generations. I estimate that undergraduate and graduate students made up 40% of the event’s attendance, and the remaining 60% were researchers in academia, government, or industry. I guessed there was at least 10,000 years of collective materials science research among the conference halls in various fields and focuses of research.

Most talks were much shorter than I anticipated, presenters were only given 15 minutes to present the research and findings they had been working on for months, this included time for questions and answers as well. Some distinguished presenters and invited speakers were given time slots up to an hour, but no single speaker topped this time.

The Symposium X presentations were some of the longer presentations, given during lunch time. These speakers included Henry Snaith of Oxford, who has done some amazing work in commercializing perovskite solar cells, which offer a number of advantages over silicon photovoltaics such as abundance of materials and ease of manufacture. Another Symposium X speaker that impressed me was Angela M. Belcher of MIT, whose team uses bioengineering to create silver and gold nanotubes, with applications ranging from battery anodes and cathodes to targeting cancer cells. The final Symposium X talk I attended was on the Materials Genome Initiative and featured several government speakers on policy and current action to accelerate the USA’s materials science knowledge and creation capability.

I spent most of my time at the conference on topics that were sustainability or energy related, since energy issues are an increasing concern for future generations, but the topics were also a broader reflection of my interests. These topics included photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, plasmonics, spin systems, battery chemistry, atomistic simulation, and machine learning, all of which I spend much time reading about. There was an interesting series of talks on sustainability that included the general who, what, where, when, and why, but also included an industry panel composed of speakers from First Solar, Boeing, 3M, Dow, and more. The discussions were captivating, and I ended up gaining an appreciation from many of these companies’ efforts to green themselves and the planet.

Another series of talks that caught my attention was an Entrepreneurship Forum, which involved business coaching, networking in industry training methods, a talk by a startup owner in a high tech industry, and a panel involving representatives from academia, industry, and a national lab. I enjoyed a related talk by  Donald Sadoway of MIT about what it takes to create an inventor’s mind, which tied in his experience with his grid storage battery startup Ambri. Ambri manufactures low cost liquid metal batteries for kWh to MWh scale energy storage.

I spent a lot of time learning about the latest breakthroughs in organic and earth abundant semiconductor manufacturing practices, and other new technologies such as perovskite cell types. I also spent a large fraction of my time studying organic and non-organic thermoelectric materials, which pose a great ability to convert the copious amounts of our waste heat back into useful electricity. These thermoelectric talks I attended were at times hard to follow since I have little experience in the field, but I believe I’ve planted the seeds for future endeavors and managed to pick up some basic knowledge along the way. I also spent a good amount of time listening to plasmonic and spin talks, which can be used for increasing light trapping and overall efficiency in solar cells. The battery talks I attended were on different chemistries and architectures which possess alternative characteristics to those offered by lithium ion, and the machine learning talks I attended gave me a new tool to use to decode large amounts of data.

Overall, this was one of the best experiences of my life. I visited a new city, made new friends, spent quality time with existing good friends, and took in a healthy dose of science. I definitely plan on attending future MRS events, and other conferences that peak my interest, of which I’m sure there will be many. This conference opened my eyes to a new world of opportunity to explore new places, new people, and new ideas. That being said, I’m excited to get back to the Physics Club at WMU, where these conversations will compliment the other topics we discuss throughout the day, which are as varied as the universe itself.

If you get the chance to go to a conference in a field you love, take it. Conferences pose excellent learning and networking experiences for students, graduate students, and professional researchers in an amazing wealth of topics. A spectrum of conferences held each year host an astonishing number of people from all over the world, making opportunities nearly endless for the curious minded.

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A group of students and Donald Sadoway of MIT (center), who is responsible for development of the liquid metal battery and works with his startup Ambri on grid scale energy storage.