PECASE award recipient blazes trail in material research


Nestled past the corner of Green Street and Goodwin Avenue, just behind Loomis Laboratory, is the Seitz Materials Research Lab, where Dr. Lane Martin and his crew partake in the dirty work.

Just as the invention of the silicon microchip rocked and rattled the 20th century, these kinds of brainchildren were built on the compounded ideas of previous backroom heroes; pioneers who paved the way through decades of research, subtly laying down stepping stones for future generations to follow. Martin is a backroom hero. A modern-day Tesla, of sorts.

The world is now in the silicon age, where everything from microchips to computers are made with this semi-conductor. But Martin’s research is pushing the envelope, flirting with a materials revolution, as he develops multi-functional materials to pioneer the “next generation (of) logic and memory sensing capabilities,” he said.

Recent efforts have been gauged toward trying to make silicon purer, cleaner and more efficient, Martin said. This is where Martin’s oxide films come in. Oxide films are versatile, nanometer-thin layers of oxygen-containing chemical compounds. 

“These oxides can have a huge range of properties that you can’t get in anything else. You can get all kinds of functionality (and crazy effects) out of them,” Martin said. “We’re interested in oxides because they have all these weird, wild properties.”

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As a result of his standout research, Martin recently became one of 102 young scientists and engineers awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2013. His research has been in collaboration with the Army Research Office, where his multi-functional material might provide a better cooling environment for equipment, like night vision goggles, that tend to overheat and become less efficient as it does so.

“It felt good (to get recognized). … I think most faculty are driven by this concept of creating new knowledge and training kind of this new generation of scientists and engineers to really go out there and solve these problems that we have,” he said.  

The research conducted by Martin and his group is expansive, covering the fields of magnetism, ferroelectricity and superconductivity. These materials can control heat by applying electric and magnetic fields to a system to convert wasted heat into energy and cool devices and materials that need cooling.  

“In the U.S., out of all of the energy that we burn, about 60 percent of it is thrown away as heat that we can’t use,” he said. “If we can figure out a way to harness that heat and turn it back to electricity, you have a good game to play.”

Innovating for future generations, Martin sees his research as a stepping stone to what could be the future of energy conservation and renewal. 

“There’s a real possibility that within our lifetime, we’re going to move over from silicon over to a new material. … Developing new materials, how to put them into new devices, developing functionality of these devices — that’s really what we’re working on,” Martin said.

The PECASE award comes with up to five years of federal funding to continue research, and its funds are already being implemented and put to use. 

“We’ve already hired some brand new graduate students and we’re going to pair those graduate students with some post docs,” Martin said. “We’ll start pushing on the development of these materials.” 

The award’s importance, and the role of Martin, is not lost on his group members either. 

“I think the award will help highlight how important it is that basic research science gets done,” said Brent Apgar, graduate researcher in materials science and engineering. “We’re kind of just laying the groundwork to use the materials in the future. He’s a really good adviser, really good at helping everybody in the group with their professional development. He does a really good job of making us better scientists.”

Zuhuang Chen, post-graduate researcher in materials science and engineering, also believes Martin has a positive effect toward his students and fellow group members.

“Dr. Lane is very intelligent and very responsible towards his students,” Chen said. “I learned a lot from him, and he’s really good at communicating and writing, and I learn a lot from that.”

The phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” rang especially true for Martin. He grew up in Indiana, Penn., a small, rural town of 14,000 people where he climbed the ranks as a prodigal chemistry and math enthusiast in a place where everyone invested in his success. 

“My parents were liberal arts faculty members at a small school there, and so they stopped being able to help me with my math and science homework when I was like 12,” he said. “I came from a really supportive family who cared a lot about my education, and even though they didn’t really know what the hell I was talking about with science and engineering, they knew it was important to get those experiences.”

He grew up in the background of blue-collared grit, with family members working the steel mills and lumber yards of western Pennsylvania their entire lives. Martin was the first technical person to come out from his family.

Martin was recruited by a few of the Big Ten schools to play football, but he opted to attend Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious engineering program instead, figuring he “had a better shot at being a scientist than being an NFL player.”

Since doing research on oxide films early on in his freshman year of college, Martin stuck with materials science through his undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate studies. After receiving his BS in Materials Science and Engineering in 2003, he went on to get both his masters and doctorate at Berkeley before landing at the University in 2009.

Martin and his research group, Prometheus, are now building the backbone and foundation for what is typically a long innovation cycle. 

“When you’re doing group work like ours, you (can) find an awesome discovery in our laboratory, (but) it might take 20 years before that could end up as a real product,” Martin said. 

Recent government funding and support has helped cut that time span significantly and “(research) is less of a daunting task, as it’s only going to be 10 years as opposed to 20 years of your life,” he said. 

At Illinois, Martin sees materials science, and engineering in general, as a field that is pushing the envelope of what can be done. 

“These people who can come in here and really think deeply about these problems … trying to create this new game changing discovery that enables a new functionality, new phenomenon and basically changes the way something should be done,” Martin said. 

“They’re in the classroom with world class experts in their field and they’re getting a sneak peek at stuff that the rest of the world just doesn’t get … I think that’s a really unique aspect of engineering at Illinois.”

Meanwhile, Martin and his group continue to work toward their 21st century breakthrough.

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected].