Alexandra Navrotsky increases ASU donation to $10M to help ensure future of materials science

September 14, 2021

Alexandra Navrotsky has long been invested in materials science as a researcher and professor, and with her most recent donation to Arizona State University, she is ensuring that the study will continue to be supported for years to come.

In 2019, Navrotsky rejoined ASU as a professor in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Molecular Sciences and in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and as the director of the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe. Professor Alexandra Navrotsky Professor Alexandra Navrotsky at the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe's ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2019. Navrotsky has made a $10 million donation to Arizona State University to help further the growth of material science at the university. Photo by Mary Zhu/ASU Download Full Image

“In addition to the leadership and internationally recognized scholarship that Alex brings to ASU, she has made a personal $10 million investment which will ensure the long-term growth of materials science in this area at ASU,” said Neal Woodbury, vice president for research and chief science and technology officer for ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise. “This gift will support the Center for Materials of the Universe, named professors of materials research, early-career faculty encouragement awards and research in thermochemistry. The Materials of the Universe Center is an opportunity for ASU to significantly advance materials science research through a collaboration between the sciences and engineering.”

A chemist by training, Navrotsky’s first faculty position was at ASU in 1969.

“I wasn't actively job hunting at that point; I was thinking I'd stay in my postdoc for two years. But I came out for an interview. They liked what they saw in me; I liked what I saw in them,” Navrotsky said. “ASU was a wonderful place to be because it was really building up both in student numbers and in quality, and the solid-state sciences effort was really thriving. When I came, I didn't fully realize what a wonderful opportunity it would be. And of course we, the young faculty at the time, helped make it and defined the field of what was going on at ASU. So those days in the 1970s and early '80s were really, really exciting.”

In 1985, Navrotsky joined the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University and served as the chair from 1988 to 1991. Then in 1997, she moved to the University of California, Davis, and became an interdisciplinary professor of ceramic, earth and environmental materials chemistry. In 2001, she was appointed the Edward Roessler Chair in Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Following a celebration of life for emeritus professor of chemistry and geology John Holloway in 2018, Navrotsky said she began to reflect on the exciting days of research she experienced at ASU in the ’70s.

“It occurred to me once I got home to say, ‘OK, you can't re-create the past, but what are the opportunities now?’ And that's when I started thinking about the Materials of the Universe Center opportunity,” she said.

In the first donation to her endowment, Navrotsky said she was focused on establishing the center and ensuring that those involved had access to funding. Then this year, as she was reviewing her retirement plans, she said she realized she had a larger sum than expected and made a plan to help ensure future research in a topic she cares deeply about, at a place she is forever connected to.

“ASU has a long and distinguished tradition in solid-state science. The new opportunities in Materials of the Universe related to solid-state science are something that I hope will continue at ASU for many years, and my endowment should help stabilize and energize that effort.”

The gift is structured to help impact graduate-level research and junior faculty support as well as direct funding for ASU’s thermodynamics research efforts.

“I'm convinced now, after being here since October of 2019, that I made the right choice to come back home. I hope that I have a number of good years to continue doing things, having fun and helping ASU.”

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Study explores a unique material with tunable properties

September 14, 2021

If you’re old enough, you may still have a box of cassettes or VHS tapes lying around. These storage devices were popular in the 1970s and '80s but have since fallen into disuse, replaced by CDs and other digital media.

Now, researchers are taking a new look at chromium oxides, magnetic chemical compounds once used to coat the surfaces of such tapes. Jacob Garcia (left) and Scott Sayres, researchers at ASU’s Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences. Download Full Image

In a new study, Scott Sayres and Jacob Garcia, researchers at Arizona State University's Biodesign Center for Applied Structural Discovery and the School of Molecular Sciences, use mass spectroscopy and ultrafast laser pulses to interrogate chromium oxides in unprecedented detail.

“Chromium oxides are known to have really exciting magnetic and electronic properties,” Sayres said. “They're a very unique material that's poorly understood at the molecular level.”

One of the surprising findings of the current study is that adding oxygen atoms to chromium compounds increases their metallic properties and these alterations can be very precisely controlled.

The results open the door to a new breed of electronics that may soon reach the smallest possible scale, permitting the design of tunable, molecular-sized components that could vastly increase processing and storage capacities in new devices.

The findings, which appear in the current issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, describe the behavior of clusters of chromium oxide atoms, which can be fine-tuned to alter their electrical conductance, variously behaving as wire-like conductors of electricity, semiconductors or insulators, depending on the number of oxygen atoms present.

Such innovations are part of an ongoing change in electronics known as spintronics. While conventional electronic devices control the flow of electrical charge, spintronics additionally takes advantage of spin, a quantum property of electrons, potentially permitting far greater storage capacity and data transfer speed.

The basic idea found its way into the first consumer products in the late 1990s in the form of magnetic computer hard drives boasting several hundred of times the storage capacity of their predecessors.

Chromium oxides are particularly well suited for such applications due to their high spin polarity, a measure of the range of conductance states the chromium clusters can assume, based on the number of oxygen atoms (or oxidation state).

Known as a half-metal, chromium oxide is an inorganic compound composed of oxygen and chromium atoms, which combine to form a crystal structure. The term half-metal alludes to the fact that its electrical properties can morph between high-conductance metallic behavior and low-conductance insulating behavior, depending on its electron configuration.

Chromium oxide clusters, composed of chromium and oxygen atoms, are prized for their unique electrical properties, which allow their conductance to be fine-tuned. The addition of oxygen atoms to chromium clusters increases their metallic properties.

In the current study, a femtosecond laser is used as a camera to observe the motion of excited state electrons, capturing dynamic events that take place on a femtosecond time scale, or a millionth of a billionth of a second. As oxygen atoms were added to the chromium clusters, the subtle transitions between insulating and metallic conducting properties were observed.  

“We've tried to take the smallest possible building blocks of chromium oxide and change them atom by atom,” Sayres said.

The results show that the bulk properties of chromium oxide still exist down to an extremely small scale.

“This means that we can make new devices out of very small amounts of material and still have these exciting electronic properties that chromium oxides are known for,” Sayres said.

In addition to a new generation of familiar electronic devices, chromium oxide-based spintronics may help pave the way for quantum computing.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU