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Steven Jacobsen Wins Packard Fellowship

February 4, 2013

Steven D. Jacobsen, assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has been awarded a five-year, $875,000 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. One of only 20 scientists nationwide to receive this prestigious unrestricted research grant, Jacobsen will use his funding to study physical properties on the atomic scale of superhard materials targeted for future technological applications. Jacobsen's award continues a string of remarkable successes enjoyed by EPS assistant and associate professors over the past two years. Last year, Andrew Jacobson also won a Packard Fellowship in addition to receiving $847,000 in funding through the NSF-Major Research Instrumentation Program. More recently, Jacobson was awarded the F.W. Clarke Medal from the Geochemical Society and received a $625,000 grant from the NSF Polar Program. In 2007, Suzan van der Lee won a five-year NSF CAREER award, the agency's most prestigious grant for early-career scientists, a feat Jacobsen duplicated earlier this year.

Describing his proposal for the Packard Felloship, Jacobsen indicates that it is "very cross-disciplinary." Having previously developed a special technique for geophysical research, he will use the Packard support to apply it to "current challenges in materials science and engineering that are related to understanding the properties of superhard materials."

Every year, the Packard Foundation invites presidents of 50 selected universities to nominate two young professors doing innovative research in the natural sciences or engineering.

"The Fellowship Program provides significant funding for the fellows to advance their research to new levels at a critical period early in their careers," said Lynn Orr, Packard Foundation Trustee, Chairman of the Fellowship Advisory Panel and Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor at Stanford University. "These talented scientists will use this funding to find innovative solutions to major scientific challenges."

A mineralogist and geophysicist, Jacobsen conducts high pressure-temperature laboratory experiments at both Northwestern and the Advanced Photon Source of Argonne National Laboratory. Using presses made of gem diamonds, Jacobsen and his students study the unusual properties of materials compressed to pressures approaching those found at the center of the Earth.

"Laboratory-synthesized materials with very high hardness have potential uses ranging from abrasives and machining tool inserts to scratch-resistant coatings and efficient, low-friction machines," said Jacobsen. "However, accurately determining the physical properties of materials with hardness approaching diamond has proved challenging and is an area of scientific controversy in the field."

Jacobsen will use Packard funds to further develop the nano-pulsed GHz-ultrasonic probe installed in his Northwestern laboratory. The probe measures the speed of acoustic waves zipping through tiny crystals at up to 17 kilometers per second (38,000 miles per hour).

"I believe the high-frequency technique can pick up where other macroscopic testing or optical techniques might fail," said Jacobsen. "The probe should work well in determining the elastic tensor of superhard crystallites measuring less than 50 micrometers in size, as well as nano-crystalline aggregates. At the atomic scale, the lattice strength of materials is related to chemical bonding, which the elasticity measurements can probe."

Materials under study will include chemical vapor deposition diamond synthesized by colleagues at the Carnegie Institution for Science, as well as various nitrides and borides used in Jacobsen's high-pressure experimental devices.

"Science and society alike have long been fascinated with diamond as the hardest known substance," said Jacobsen. "Research results on new materials will illuminate why certain substances are hard and improve our ability to recognize and engineer them in the future."

Jacobsen is using his NSF CAREER award to study the incorporation of water into minerals at very-high pressures and temperatures. He has authored or co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed research articles in the areas of mineralogy, geology, geophysics and physics, and co-edited a recent book with Suzan van der Lee, associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences, entitled "Earth's Deep Water Cycle," published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

A Northwestern faculty member since 2006, Jacobsen currently serves on the Executive Committee of Rock and Mineral Physics at the AGU. He is involved in program development at the Advanced Photon Source through service on the Infrastructure Development Committee of the Consortium for Materials Properties Research in Earth Sciences (COMPRES). Jacobsen also is active in Project EXCITE, a science and math enrichment program for academically talented K-8 minority students in Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

The Packard Fellowship Program, established in 1988, is among the nation's largest nongovernmental programs designed to seek out and reward the pursuit of scientific discovery with "no strings attached" support. --NU Newsroom

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