Materials Science & Chemistry: SUSU is on the Threshold of Developing an Interdisciplinary Cluster

Be on the same wavelength of relevant changes in the academic field, open up new horizons, attain top positions in the QS World University Rankings by subjects – all of these are ingredients for success of the leading university in the South Ural.

In the context of Project 5-100, SUSU has drastically changed its structure and the work on its improvement is still in progress. Innovative laboratories and world-class centres are being established at the University. In the framework of the most promising research areas in the university – Materials Science & Chemistry – it is expected to create a materials science and chemical cluster, which guarantees SUSU’s inclusion and promotion in the homonymous subject ranking QS Materials Science: Chemistry.

On the perspectives of creating the cluster, carrying out of an interdisciplinary seminar in the Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, experiences of other universities in the organisation of such scientific platforms and prospects for further development of project-based learning using this cluster, we talk to the head of project-based learning in “Reagentless (Photocatalytic) Water Cleaning from Impurities Resistant to Oxidation”, Dean of the Faculty of Chemistry, director of Nanotechnology REC, head of the Ecology and Chemical Technology Department, Doctor of Sciences (Chemistry) Vyacheslav Avdin.

– What projects can be included in the structure of the Materials Science: Chemistry research area?

– There are plenty of them, all these projects are diverse and interdisciplinary in their nature: they involve not only the Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and not only the Faculty of Chemistry, although chemists are the link for all projects. One of the most interesting and deserving attention is a project aimed at obtaining new materials for photonics and spintronics. Within this project we are conducting research as part of international collaboration. The project finance is based on a grant from the Russian Science Foundation in the amount of 40 mln roubles. The initial implementation period was 3 years, but the project has been currently extended for another two years. The international research project is managed by Doctor of Sciences (Chemistry), Professor, head of the Polysulphur-Nitrogen Heterocycles Laboratory of the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow) Oleg Rakitin. The project manager from SUSU is Candidate of Sciences (Chemistry) Oleg Bolshakov. The research collaboration also includes the University of Edinburgh and the Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow).

– What is the main goal and advantages of this project?

– The project’s concept is in obtaining materials based on new organic semiconductors. I would like to remind that semiconductors are the basis of radio components (radio elements) invented in the middle of the last century. Semiconductors replaced radio tubes, which made it possible to minimize the size of the device and increase its performance. Gradually, the improvement of semiconductors contributed to the development of computers. The first semiconductors were produced on the basis of germanium, later they were produced on the basis of silicon. Modern semiconductors are manufactured on the basis of organic compounds. One of the leaders in this field is the International Laboratory of Chalcogen-Nitrogen Heterocycles. The results of the laboratory investigation have been presented in a number of scientific papers. A team of researchers led by Oleg Rakitin actively publishes their works in foreign scientific journals. Their articles are actively cited by the international scientific community. In the period from 2017 to 2018, h-index of Prof. Rakitin has increased by three points, and makes up 21. It can be noted that the research team under his supervision is an absolute leader in the area of Materials Science at SUSU. The Laboratory of Chalcogen-Nitrogen Heterocycles has witnessed a considerable increase in terms of citation.

Another leader in the Materials Science area is the Multiscale Modelling of Polyfunctional Compounds International Laboratory, set up with the support of Project 5-100. One of the main projects realised by the Laboratory is an interdisciplinary study on the properties of chemical bonds and intermolecular interactions being at the confluence of chemistry, physics and computer science.

The laboratory is led by Artem Masunov (PhD, Professor at the University of Central Florida, USA). The manager from our university is Doctor of Sciences (Chemistry), associate professor Ekaterina Bartashevich. The laboratory demonstrates high results reflected in the publication activity, a great number of top-rated, well-cited publications on the modelling of polyfunctional compounds. The results of a collaborative study of Ekaterina Bartashevich and Prof. Vladimir Tsirelson (D.I. Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia) on the characterization of chemical bonds were published in the high-impact Journal of Computational Chemistry (Top 10 according to the Web of Science and Scopus international databases).

The research area “Reagentless (Photocatalytic) Water Cleaning from Impurities Resistant to Oxidation” is also among the leaders in terms of publications. Research studies are carried out in the framework of international collaboration with the University of Oviedo (Spain) and implemented at SUSU in context of project-based learning.

The international collaboration includes two our graduates, namely Igor Krivtsov and Marina Ilkaeva. They have graduated from SUSU, defended their Candidate’s dissertations. At the University of Oviedo, they defended their PhD theses on the same topic. A PhD degree enables one to apply for European grants. The collaboration is engaged in obtaining and analysing the properties of new photocatalysts. Photocatalysts are substances that ensure compound chemical interactions. They significantly accelerate the chemical reaction, which in some cases makes it possible in principle (some reactions do not take place because of extremely low speed).

There are two more scientific groups that I cannot but mention. This is a project group under the supervision of Doctor of Sciences, Prof. Vladimir Sharutin dealing with organo-element compounds. Over the last year, this group has also demonstrated a high increase in citations: h-index of Prof. Sharutin increased by two points. Organo-element compounds, which are studied by Sharutin’s group, are used in a wide range of areas. These are biologically active materials and catalysts. The group’s forte is synthesis of new, previously unknown materials, and analysis of their structure. The reactions of oxidation and phenylation of alcohols and phenols by phenyl derivatives of antimony and bismuth, discovered by Vladimir Sharutin, served as the beginning for the use of these derivatives in fine organic synthesis. Special attention should be paid to the research group led by Doctor of Sciences (Chemistry), Professor Dmitry Kim. The team concentrates on the synthesis of organic and heterocyclic compounds. Candidate’s dissertations are regularly defended in this area. Prof. Kim’s team trains promising young scientists for SUSU and other universities.

– What new research areas could you tell us in more detail?

– One of the new promising research areas relates more to ecology than to materials science. I mean bioindication of environmental conditions. It should be emphasised that researchers of this group are at the top of the list in terms of citations at SUSU! This topic is relevant not only for our city, but also for all cities that have large industrial enterprises.

Among the leaders in the materials science field is a promising area realised in the Institute of Engineering and Technology, namely the study on the functional properties of magnetic materials, such as hexaferrites (hexagonal ferrites of M type). These materials can absorb electromagnetic radiation in a wide range. This research group led by Candidate of Sciences (Engineering), associate professor, head of the Crystal Growth Laboratory at the Nanotechnology REC Denis Vinnik includes Candidate of Sciences (Physics and Mathematics), postdoctoral research fellow Aleksey Trukhanov. The h-index in this group led by Denis Vinnik has increased by 4 points, and today equals to 11.

The research team under the guidance of a research engineer of Nanotechnology REC, Candidate of Sciences (Chemistry) Dmitry Zherebtsov develops innovative composite materials based on different compounds, including dyes. This group is also distinguished by a high publication activity and qualitative indicators of citation. Among the participants of the future Materials Science: Chemistry cluster is an interuniversity course implemented in the Functional Materials Laboratory under the guidance of Doctor of Sciences (Physics and Mathematics) Sergey Taskaev. In collaboration with the universities of Darmstadt, Seville, and others, researchers of this laboratory only in 2018 have published 65 articles in Scopus, 43 of which are in the TOP-25%! The research studies focus on the synthesis of new magnetic materials with desired properties, synthesis of new materials with shape memory and thermoelectric effect. The combination of all these scientific areas into the materials science and chemical cluster should ensure SUSU’s inclusion and promotion in the QS Materials Science: Chemistry ranking by subjects.

– Has the experience of other universities been used in planning the chemical cluster based on the Faculty of Chemistry?

– Thinking over the structure and development of Materials Science: Chemistry research area, we actively use the experience of our colleagues. The experience of ITMO University is very interesting in this regard. The Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics has never specialized in chemistry, but within the framework of Project 5-100 they decided to develop a chemical cluster. To some extent, at the earliest days, we are planning to adopt this experience in the Faculty of Chemistry within the Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (INSM). I am referring to the chemical cluster, in the framework of which ITMO University realised project-based learning. ITMO University has projects on the development of innovative materials (including catalysts). The catalysts within the project are formed (adjusted) for certain types of pollution. Master’s students are invited to projects based on competitive selection. To be included in the ITMO chemical cluster is not an easy task, they accept only the best!

Students do their masters, carry out projects, and acquire the competence that they need to get a degree. In addition to this, they defend master’s dissertations. At the end of their studies, they already have one or two (sometimes three) publications in high-impact journals. With these results, PhD programmes of both Russian and foreign universities beckon for them. Furthermore, they are always welcome in high-tech chemical enterprises. At SUSU, we also plan to put this idea into practice. ITMO University cannot boast of a main educational process (in terms of chemistry), and in some sense it is easier for them. SUSU has gained a wide experience in the field of chemistry. The ITMO model can be implemented at our university.

– What is the main point of conducting the interdisciplinary seminar on the basis of INSM? Why is there a demand for it right now?

– The interdisciplinary seminar is aimed at identifying the most effective research groups and finding opportunities of their interaction. Most specialists in the Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics are high-level professionals in this particular field. However, for a fruitful collaboration and further development, we all need the help of colleagues. I will give a simple example. I cannot say that I don’t know math at all. But I am not eager to solve differential equations. Thus, I stay away from tasks, where it is needed. And they can be very promising.

In addition to the research tasks set for our Faculty, we all have a common task, i.e. improve the level of scientific activity of our Institute and the University as a whole. The idea of interdisciplinary seminar belongs to the Institute’s director, Doctor of Sciences (Physics and Mathematics) Alevtina Keller. I supported her initiative. During the interdisciplinary seminar, all participants have an opportunity to discuss topics that are at the intersection of disciplines, launch new projects, and produce collective papers, which can be later published in top journals indexed in Scopus and Web of Science.

Currently, according to our joint research, mathematicians have developed a new software product. We are already preparing one collective publication. In the near future, we will get new results, and we will start writing the second paper. I am expecting a journal which is in the Top 25 list! The interdisciplinary seminar has great prospects for its development. Collective publications of INSM scientists may appear at once in several related scientific fields. The main objective of such enhanced interdisciplinary work is the development of materials science and chemical cluster, ensuring SUSU’s inclusion and promotion in the QS Materials Science: Chemistry ranking.

Yulia Rudneva; photo: from personal files of the participants
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