Li receives research award | The Triangle

Li receives research award

Drexel associate professor Christopher Li and his student research team recently received the National Science Foundation’s Special Creativity Award for their research on interfaces between hard and soft matter.

According to a Drexel press release, this is the first time the Special Creativity Award has been given to someone at Drexel. As outlined on the Foundation’s website, the NSF gives the Special Creativity Award to projects judged to be especially creative, in order to provide these projects additional time and funding for high-risk research that may not have been covered by the initial grant.

Christopher Li, associate professor of materials engineering, leads a team of student researchers at Drexel. Their award-winning research examines hard and soft matter.
The award specifically stems from Li’s original NSF grant entitled “Carbon Nanotube Induced Polymer Crystallization, Structure and Morphology,” according to the press release. The award extends the project’s grant two years and provides $115,000 per year.


Li, an associate professor of materials engineering, said he was surprised to receive the award, which he said was “quite an honor.” He credited the graduate and undergraduate students on his research team, saying, “The students in the lab did most of the hard work,” and adding that the award is for the entire team.

Li’s project team consists of one post-doctoral student, seven doctoral students and four students in the dual degree Bachelor and Master of Science program.

Eric Laird, a materials science and engineering doctoral student on the project team, said he was pleased about the award in part because it was “good to hear that we’re getting funded.” He added that funding can be difficult to find in the current economy, and that “external funding is like the lifeblood of a research group.”

Laird, who has been involved with the project for over three years, said he believed one main reason for the funding was the part of the team’s research that focuses on adding nanoparticles to crystals. Laird credited Bing Li, a former doctoral student who was on the project team before graduating last year, with being especially adept at this process, saying that Li’s work with these materials was an art.

According to Christopher Li, the team’s research has applications in fields including biomedicine, where the team can “try to mimic … bone structure” using a hybrid of soft and hard materials. In addition to replacement bones, these materials can be used to create replacement tissue as well, Li said.

Laird said the team’s research relates well to biomedical engineering because many polymers – a type of soft matter – are biocompatible.

“Living things and polymers are a natural marriage,” Laird said.

Another application for the team’s research includes smaller electronics, according to Li. Laird said the research has allowed the team to create improved transistors. He said more of these transistors can fit on one computer chip than on other transistor types.

A main goal of computer chip makers is to fit more transistors on a chip, since doing so can allow for faster processes, according to Laird. He added that the Drexel research team uses a relatively simple, low-cost method to create these transistors.

Li said the research also has applications for sports equipment, such as tennis rackets. Laird said some tennis rackets are currently made with a blend of polymers and filler material, like graphite or carbon fiber, and that the research team hopes to improve this blend by giving the polymers a structured organization. Tennis racket polymers currently feature a more haphazard setup, according to Laird.

Other potential applications of the research include military body armor, more fuel-efficient airplanes and more efficient sensors, according to Li and the Drexel press release on the subject.

Li added that the research team has thus far released approximately 10 publications on the project and hopes to release more in the future.

Li said the most rewarding part of the research for him is that the research community has accepted his team’s ideas and taken the initiative to bring the ideas to a new level, and that many Drexel students who have worked on the research have found careers partly due to their work on the project.

Laird said the part of the research he enjoys most is being able to make a prediction about some aspect of the project and then try it out and see its success.

Li said that although all his projects are memorable, this current project has been his most memorable one at Drexel, partly because it deals with both hard and soft matter, while his previous work dealt more with only soft matter materials like polymers and crystals. He added that he expects the project to be a long term one, continuing for 15 or 20 years.

Li has been at Drexel since 2002.