Professor Marianetti Wins DARPA Young Faculty Award and FAME Grant

Sep 10 2013 | By Holly Evarts

Chris Marianetti, assistant professor in the applied physics and applied mathematics department, has won the prestigious DARPA Young Faculty Award. Only 25 awards, which are presented annually to promising young faculty early in their careers, were given across all scientific/engineering disciplines this year.

Chris Marianetti

“I am honored to be recognized by DARPA and excited to show how my research can impact disruptive technologies,” says Marianetti, whose research involves using the first principles of quantum mechanics, together with high performance computing, to predict the behavior of materials from metals to ceramics to semiconductors. Applications of his work are equally diverse, spanning mechanical, electrical, and magnetic properties.

Marianetti plans to use the DARPA award to study a broad class of transition metal-oxides containing Jahn-Teller ions, requiring extensions and reformulation of current theoretical methods. “Jahn-Teller crystals display a broad range of emergent phenomena including colossal magnetoresistance and the spontaneous formation of peculiar structural features known as nanocheckerboards,” he notes, “and these are exactly the sort of complex materials that have potential to deliver transformative technologies.”

In addition to the DARPA award, Marianetti recently won a $850,000 five-year grant for research he is conducting at the Focus Center on Function Accelerated nanoMaterial Engineering (FAME), one of six university-based research centers of the Semiconductor Technology Advanced Research Network (STARnet).

“I’m really thrilled to be representing Columbia Engineering in this effort, which is based out of UCLA,” Marianetti says. “What’s particularly rewarding is the fact that the leading companies in the industry—including IBM, Intel, Micron, and others—have recognized the relevance of the techniques I’ve helped develop over the past decade that were previously confined to predominantly fundamental scientific research. It is great to be able to take our theoretical work and use it to search for the next generation of electronic devices.”

The FAME researchers are focused on developing new nonconventional atomic-scale engineered materials and nanostructures of multi-function oxides, metals, and semiconductors to accelerate innovations in analog, logic, and memory devices that will transform the semiconductor and defense industries. The semiconductor industry has been very proactive in attempting to anticipate what might provide the next generation of transistors and memory devices, Marianetti observes, given that current technologies are rapidly approaching fundamental barriers.

Marianetti specializes in predicting the behavior of transition metal oxides from the first principles of quantum mechanics, particularly those displaying strongly correlated electron behavior with unusual electronic and magnetic properties. “Strongly correlated electron systems display a dizzying array of exotic properties including high temperature superconductivity, colossal magnetoresistance, Mott transitions, and many others,” he explains.

He and his team are hoping that a new generation of electronic devices can be realized by harnessing the sensitive properties of strongly correlated electron systems. The starting point will be the standard theory of materials science—density functional theory (DFT)—which is a quantum mechanical modeling method used to investigate the electronic structure of many-body systems such as atoms, molecules, and materials. But, Marianetti points out, DFT sometimes qualitatively breaks down when addressing strongly correlated electron systems: “Luckily, there are now more advanced theories, like the dynamical mean-field theory (DMFT), that can deal with DFT’s shortcomings and unlock the behavior of strongly correlated systems.”

Marianetti is working on developing the DMFT method and merging it with DFT to create a robust hybrid DFT/DMFT theory. “This will give us predictive power over strongly correlated electron systems, allowing us to start with nothing but the laws of physics and make quantitative predictions of nature,” he observes. “And, with these theoretical and computational developments, we’ll be able to design new materials at the atomic scale and work with experimentalists to realize novel phenomena and functionality. We’re really trying to push the envelope and tame some of the most difficult materials systems. Our experimental colleagues are already gearing up to grow a new class of oxide heterostructures which we designed virtually, containing multiple types of transition metals and cations.”

STARnet projects, which are funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) as part of public-private partnership with the Department of Defense and U.S. semiconductor and supplier industries, are aimed at helping to maintain U.S. leadership in semiconductor technology. Annually, $40 million is dedicated to the program, with each university researchcenter receiving about $6 million. The projects were established by the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), which also administers the program. Participating universities include Columbia, Cornell, UC Berkeley, MIT, UC Santa Barbara, Stanford, UC Irvine, UCLA, Purdue, Rice, UC Riverside, North Carolina State, Caltech, Penn, West Virginia, and Yale.