Center for Adapting
Flaws into Features


Our Vision

Our vision for the NSF Center for Adapting Flaws into Features (CAFF) is to solve some of the biggest challenges in heterogeneous and interfacial chemistry by imaging chemical irregularities, ‘flaws’, determining their role in materials behavior, and developing the science to exploit those unique characteristics. In doing so, we will develop a scientific toolkit to enable the community to better transform this chemical knowledge into future materials ‘features’. Material failure often initiates at chemical defects, yet chemical irregularities can also serve as the location of chemical activity. Ultimately, such defects at the level of individual atoms and chemical bonds propagate upwards in length and time scale to control many desirable chemical features such as overall catalytic activity, macroscopic energy transfer through heterogeneous interfaces, efficient light harvesting, or reliable behavior of electrode surfaces. As molecular structures grow in size, complete control of every atom and bond becomes exponentially challenging. Flaws that cannot be avoided should, instead, be tuned to produce desirable features.

The Center for Adapting Flaws into Features is built around a simple premise: A detailed understanding of chemical defects at critical locations can lead to exceptional desirable properties.
We will observe defects at length scales that impact local chemistry and extend this understanding to larger scales that ultimately give rise to chemical functionality of unavoidably imperfect macroscopic assemblies of molecules while covering time scales that dictate their function from femtoseconds to minutes. Phase I is focused on the observation of critical flaws and their consequences; Phase II will build on this newfound understanding to impact desired chemistry. Thus, we will Adapt Flaws into Features.

Our NSF CAFF Phase I Projects share center Goals, complement our Education and Outreach Plan, and present Phase II opportunities: Phase I Projects are (1) Defect-dependent exciton interconversion at organic-organic interfaces; (2) Heterogeneity-driven chemical dynamics in metal-metal nanoparticles; and (3) Defect-supported energy-transfer in inorganic-organic hybrids. We will leverage our team’s combined expertise in predicting, visualizing, and time-resolving localized structure and dynamics, using methods such as electron, tunneling, and hyperspectral microscopy as well as ultrafast laser spectroscopy. 

Phase I Goals are integrated within our Education and Outreach: (A) Atomic and nanoscale visualization and understanding of defects inherent to chemistry; (B) Correlating local chemistry to ensemble chemical behavior; (C) Co-development of novel data science approaches and modular instruments to move towards seamless real-time, data loss-less analysis of large data sets.

To fast-track the democratization of chemical careers to everyone, CAFF’s Education and Outreach Plan is integrated with our Center Theme. CAFF will engage a constituency of chemists that have fallen between the cracks of public/K-12 outreach on the one hand, and undergraduate/graduate training on the other: the rapidly growing student body in Community Colleges. We will tap a network of Colleges located in diverse demographic regions near each co-PI’s respective institution. The highly diverse scientists trained at these institutions, ranging from coastal minorities to underserved rural communities in the central US, are an increasingly critical audience for continued graduate training and the health and future of American science. We will inaugurate teamplay with Community College faculty during Phase I and prototype affordable and modular instrumentation appropriate for Community College and PUI labs. These efforts will play a critical role in expanding to Phase II and help us realize our vision of connecting fundamental chemistry – the flaws – with desirable outcomes – the features.

CAFF will pursue team-level, hypothesis-driven questions that are larger and broader than any single-investigator effort. With Rossky and Levine providing theory guidance, Dionne, Gruebele, Landes, Link, Roberts, and Zanni will design spectroscopic imaging methods and translate them into modules, data analysis tools, and instruments that are accessible to the broader community.