The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has named Joseph Falson, assistant professor of materials science, as a 2021 Fellow in Materials Synthesis.
Falson will receive a grant for $1.2 million as part of the foundation's Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) Initiative, which seeks "to deepen our understanding of the organizing principles that lead to complex collective behaviors of electrons in materials and engineered structures," according to the Moore Foundation.
"Broadly, the field is looking for fundamentally new types of materials that show some type of complex functionality," says Falson, who joined Caltech's faculty in 2020. Creating and studying new and unusual types of materials can be challenging because they often require extreme conditions to form and thus can be difficult to generate in sufficient quantities for study.
"We're limited by our willingness to explore the darker corners of the periodic table," he says. Indeed, he notes, unstudied but interesting materials may be chemically unstable or sensitive to air, among other complications.
Falson's grant will enable him to pursue methods for growing highly pure crystals of new materials, which will in turn allow their study. He plans to build a custom piece of equipment with an ultra-high vacuum chamber corrosive materials that also offers access to the materials so that sensitive experiments may be conducted on them.
"The properties of these new materials are hard to predict on paper or by just seeing the individual components in isolation. You need to put all of the elements into a container and shake it, so to speak," he says.
Such work is crucial for long-term advancement of the field of materials synthesis, but is unlikely to generate a marketable product on the short term, which is why the commitment of long-term support by the Moore Foundation is so critical, Falson says.
"There's just so much fundamental work that needs to be done," he says. "We face some big-picture issues, but also some experimental design issues where you need to tweak and measure, then tweak and measure over and over again."
Falson was one of a small number of researchers offered the opportunity to apply for the fellowship, which was specifically targeted at early career individuals whose research is focused on the synthesis of materials.
The desire to take on such broad, fundamental challenges is part of what led Falson to Caltech.
"I don't think there are too many places in the world like Caltech where you can do the challenging type of work that we do. It's labor- and intellectually intensive, but this is what sets the paradigm in 10 to 50 years," Falson says.
Falson's work also received support from the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair, which provides discretionary funds to advance Institute priorities and high-risk, high-reward areas of discovery.