Behind the Gift to the University of Buffalo for Materials Research

The next breakthroughs in consumer electronics, biotechnology, and even sustainable energy often begin with new materials. The hunt for the compounds that will make the next solar panel or iPhone component is advancing along with computing power, and one University at Buffalo alum wants to help his alma mater speed things up. 

UB just received a $1.5 million grant from alum Eric Bloch to endow a chair of the university’s new Department of Materials Design and Innovation. The department will bring together engineering and other research departments for efforts to find such breakthroughs and get them to the market quickly. Such work has implications on a wide variety of advancements, since new materials can unlock huge potential for future research, commercial applications and manufacturing, and resulting economic benefits.

The gift follows a couple of other developments at BU in this area. In February, the university announced it would partner with an advanced manufacturing institute in the state, as an effort to spur growth in the economic sector. And the new department builds on the university’s Center for Excellence in Materials Informatics

These efforts in large part aim to capitalize on new techniques for pursuing the development of materials. Materials science is a time-consuming field of research, but new methods can apply powerful computing to crunch through the properties of thousands of potential materials, hunting for the most promising configurations. The new funding will help take advantage of such emerging techniques, and work to speed along the path from laboratory to market.

The latest gift comes from Eric Bloch, a German-born, American electrical engineer who received his bachelor's at UB, before going on to work for IBM starting in the 1950s. In his 30 or so years at IBM, Bloch played a big role in some revolutionary advances in computing and manufacturing of computing, specifically the groundbreaking System/360 family of computers developed in the 1960s. He would go on to serve as director of the National Science Foundation from 1984 to 1990, overseeing more than 10,000 research grants. 

The driving forces behind this type of research philanthropy share some parallels with what we’re seeing in data science grants lately. For one, it’s seeking an opportunity to get a school at the cutting edge of a growing field, especially one that brings together multiple branches of science. But there are also strong economic implications, as state and federal leaders are clamoring to realize potential in advanced manufacturing, and universities work to meet new demands.