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Keck Foundation Awards $1 Million for Cutting-edge Nanoscience Research at Clarkson University

Clarkson University Assistant Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering Zijie Yan has been awarded $1 million by the W. M. Keck Foundation to pursue cutting-edge research in nanoscience -- the study and application of extremely small things.

Zijie YanNanoscience or nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale -- about 1 to 100 nanometers. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter. There are 25.4 million nanometers in an inch.

Yan's research team includes collaborators University of Chicago Professor of Chemistry Norbert F. Scherer and Argonne National Laboratory Senior Chemist Stephen K. Gray.

The team’s project, "Light-Driven Self-Organization of Reconfigurable Artificial Nanomaterials," has the potential to solve one of the greatest unaddressed challenges in nanoscience: the dynamic, directed, precise self-assembly of nanoscale "building blocks" into designed architectures. The research could open the doors to many new ways of utilizing nanotechnology in the everyday world.

"Clarkson has long been a pioneer in materials science research achievements," said Clarkson University President Tony Collins. "We are truly appreciative of this support from the Keck Foundation, which we believe will not only elevate us to the next level of success in materials research, but also has the potential to truly transform nanoscience."

"My collaborators and I are very grateful to the Keck Foundation for providing us with their generous support and this opportunity to pursue this exciting research. I also thank Clarkson for providing the resources to ensure the success of this project," said Yan. "In addition to the new science and applications that we hope will come from this project, we also look forward to the exceptional educational opportunities, which it will provide for our students."

The ability to readily reconfigure nanoscale "building blocks" into different architectures, as if they were Lego pieces, has enormous potential for the field of materials science. But current assembly approaches do not offer this flexibility.

This project will address this challenge by exploiting light-driven self-organization to create materials with customized, reconfigurable structures and properties.

Utilizing their complementary expertise, the research team members will use both an experimental and computational approach to achieve this goal.

Computationally, they will use electrodynamics simulations to design optical fields and optimize optical binding potentials over a multi-particle system.

Experimentally, they will shape optical fields to direct the assembly using laser beams whose intensity, phase, and polarization can be modulated.

Integrating these two approaches will enable real-time light beam-shaping via computer-controlled wavefront modulators to manipulate designed optical fields instantly.

This technique could make feasible new types of reconfigurable, artificial nanomaterials consisting of unusual crystalline or quasicrystalline optical matter. These artificial nanomaterials have the potential to enable new applications, like non-surface-enhanced spectroscopy for molecular diagnostics, and tunable optical elements, such as wavelength-selective mirrors, filters, and polarizers.

An abstract of the research is available at

The research team has worked and published together since Yan was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. Scherer has more than 30 years of research experience in optics with a recent focus on dynamic behaviors of optical matter. Gray is an expert on electrodynamics modeling of light interactions with nanostructures.

Yan is at the forefront of optical trapping and manipulation techniques using structured light. He received a dual bachelor of science degree in materials science & engineering and computer science, and his master of science in physical electronics from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China. He received his Ph.D. in materials engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Before coming to Clarkson in 2015, he was a postdoctoral scholar at the James Franck Institute and Department of Chemistry at the University of Chicago.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. The Foundation also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth. For more information, please visit

Clarkson University educates the leaders of the global economy. One in five alumni already leads as an owner, CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. With its main campus located in Potsdam, New York, and additional graduate program and research facilities in the Capital Region and Beacon, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university with signature areas of academic excellence and research directed toward the world's pressing issues. Through more than 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, education, sciences and the health professions, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo and connect discovery and innovation with enterprise.

Photo caption: Clarkson University Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Zijie Yan has been awarded $1 million by the W. M. Keck Foundation to pursue cutting-edge research in nanoscience.

[A photograph for media use is available at]

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Kelly Chezum, VP for External Relations, at 315-268-4483 or]

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