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2007 News Releases



Buehler to attend NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering meeting

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Markus J. Buehler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is one of 83 engineers invited by the National Academy of Engineering to attend its prestigious 2007 Frontiers of Engineering meeting.

The annual three-day meeting brings together outstanding engineers ages 30-45 from industry, academia and government to discuss pioneering research in different engineering fields. Each year’s program is designed to provide these top-notch engineers with an opportunity to learn about cutting-edge developments in fields other than their own, so that they may begin collaborative work and establish cross-disciplinary and cross-sector contacts with their peers early in their careers.

“Frontiers of Engineering is a proven mechanism for traversing engineering disciplines,” said NAE President Wm. A. Wulf. “By exposing bright young minds to developments in areas other than their own — and giving them lots of time to interact — Frontiers enables advances in approaches and thinking that would not have occurred otherwise.”

During this year’s Frontiers at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., Sept. 24-26, attendees will discuss topics as diverse as how to engineer trustworthy computer systems, develop safe water technologies, and model and simulate human behavior; the current state of biotechnology for fuels and chemicals; and how to control protein conformations. Matthew J. Lang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biological engineering at MIT, will be one of the 16 speakers.

Buehler’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the interfaces of chemistry, mechanics and biology. Drawing upon the strengths of these different scientific disciplines, his aim is to arrive at a quantitative understanding of the macroscopic properties of chemically complex materials.

“His central hypothesis is that including the scale of chemistry is the key to arrive at quantitative and predictive models of materials, in particular during fracture, and of those materials that feature nanoscale designs—for example protein-based biological materials,” said Patrick Jaillet, the Edmund K. Turner Professor and head of the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Markus’s work could help to revolutionize the way engineers understand and create materials, by incorporating the atomistic scale into materials analysis and synthesis.”

Buehler joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty in 2005, after doing a postdoctoral research at Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. He earned a doctorate degree in materials science from the Max Planck Institute at the University of Stuttgart in 2004.

His research group seeks to understand how materials behave under extreme conditions, for example, when they break, disintegrate or yield, in order to gain insight into how materials are made. The ultimate goal would be to enable the synthesis of new materials. The group develops and uses large-scale, massively parallelized modeling techniques, which include differential multi-scale simulation methods that allow description of material behavior across scales ranging from the atomistic to the continuum engineering scale. At the same time, the techniques also model the chemistry during the formation and breaking of molecular bonds.

A particular focus of Buehler’s research has been on collagen and other proteins. Next month, he’ll have a paper published in Biophysical Journal that describes predictive molecular simulation studies revealing some fundamental properties of the tropocollagen molecule, the most abundant protein structure found on Earth.

“Our discovery clarifies a long-standing debate about the properties of this molecule,” said Buehler. “We have used a new simulation approach that for the first time overcomes large challenges associated with modeling such systems. Our model could have impact far beyond the application to the tropocollagen molecule.”

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in late 2006, Buehler and co-authors describe a mathematical model explaining the distinctive structure of collagen, a material key to healthy human bone, muscles and other tissues. The model shows collagen’s structure from the atomic to the tissue scale and describes which length and arrangement of collagen molecules are best for sustaining large weights pulling in opposite directions.

In a paper published in the Jan. 19, 2006 issue of Nature, Buehler’s group describes an atom-by-atom simulation of cracks forming and spreading in a brittle material. The simulation may help explain how materials fail in nanoscale devices, airplanes and even in the Earth itself during a quake.

Buehler teaches courses in the mechanics of materials, materials science, and multi-scale modeling and simulation, including a course in atomistic modeling techniques offered to undergraduate students.

Markus Buehler