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'Crushing' chemical innovations at the heart of newly expanded NSF center

Three black and white images showing tiny pyramid shapes.

Three views of polymer pen arrays used to study mechanochemical reactions.

August 8, 2023

Scientists to reveal the atomic-level workings inside the crushing and grinding of mechanical chemistry, with the potential to scale up their advances to make chemical manufacturing more sustainable and cost-effective.

Understanding the atomic-scale mysteries of "crushing" chemistry is the goal of an expanding research center with a newly awarded $20 million investment from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Managed by Texas A&M University, NSF's Center for the Mechanical Control of Chemistry (CMCC) will conduct the most rigorous exploration yet into how the mechanical application of force can enable new advances in chemistry, with the potential to make industrial processes cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Mechanical chemistry, or mechanochemistry, is the crushing of chemicals to produce reactions and substances. It has long been used by chemists and nature alike — for example, diamonds are created when carbon is squeezed under enormous pressure inside the Earth. While mechanical chemistry has been used to grind out everything from pigments in Renaissance-era paintings to medicinal compounds at your local pharmacy, the atomic-scale processes at the heart of such crushing transformations are not fully understood or predictable. Moreover, while heat or light are often used to impart the energy needed to make and break bonds in chemical reactions, the use of mechanical force to impart that energy and thus drive new types of chemistry remains an underexplored frontier.

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The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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