College of Engineering News

UD’s Norm Wagner wins prize for neutron scattering

Norman Wagner, the University of Delaware Unidel Robert L. Pigford Chair in Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware, has received the 2018 Sustained Research Prize from the Neutron Scattering Society of America (NSSA). The NSAA selected Wagner “for his seminal and sustained contributions to our understanding of soft condensed matter physics using neutron scattering.”

Wagner is an internationally renowned expert in neutron scattering techniques, which use subatomic particles to probe the properties of materials. Wagner primarily uses neutron scattering to study so-called “squishy” materials such as complex fluids and soft matter. He is a leader in exploring these materials under shear flow and is also recognized for his research on rheology, nanomaterials, and non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

“I am very proud to receive this award on behalf of the many UD students, postdocs, and faculty in UD’s Center for Neutron Science that, over the past decade, have made UD one of the world’s premier research centers in soft matter science and engineering,” said Wagner.

Wagner is an inventor of shear thickening fluid technology, co-developed at UD and with STF Technologies, a company he co-founded with UD alum Richard Dombrowski. When embedded into fabric, shear thickening fluids, made with silica and polyethylene glycol, render the fabric puncture-resistant and ballistic-resistant. Neutron scattering techniques have helped Wagner understand how shear thickening fluid acts under impact. Last year, STF Technologies won a grant from NASA to produce a prototype that can shield astronauts from the harsh conditions of space.

Wagner and his team of researchers are also using their expertise in biomedical applications, studying monoclonal antibody solution structure, formulation, stability and delivery. These biologic drugs are commonly used in cancer treatment and work by helping the patient’s immune system attack cancerous cells.
Simulation rendering of monoclonal antibodies clustering in solution as deduced from neutron scattering measurements.
Simulation rendering of monoclonal antibodies clustering in solution as deduced from neutron scattering measurements.

“We use the power of neutrons to probe the molecular structure and dynamics of monocolonal antibodies in concentrated solutions, in solid and liquid formulations, at interfaces, and to understand their controlled release,” said Wagner.

This research is being conducted through worldwide collaborations with funding from both government and biopharmaceutical industry sources.

“We are very excited to be doing this high profile science that has direct relevance for improving human health by exploiting the unique properties of neutrons,” he said.

However, Wagner doesn’t just utilize neutron scattering—he also develops new technologies and methods that push the field forward.

For example, his group has developed spatio-temporal resolved small angle neutron scattering (SANS), electric-field assisted self-assembly with SANS, and dielectric-rheo-SANS. They have developed neutron spin echo methods, used time-resolved SANS in novel ways, developed the scanning narrow aperture flow USANS method, combined SANS and neutron spin echo measurements in new ways, and more.

These techniques have been used to uncover new insights about a wide range of soft materials, such as liquid crystalline polymers, colloidal dispersions, polymer blends, multilamellar vesicles, block-copolymer micelles, novel self-assembled peptide networks and branched wormlike micelles.

Wagner is a zealous advocate for neutron scattering and for basic science research in general. Inventions like his shear thickening fluid often come about after years of scientific experiments that are conducted simply to gain knowledge and understanding, without an immediate tangible end use or product in mind.
Conceptual design of novel experimental equipment to simultaneously measure rheology and nanostructure under flow conditions using neutrons
Conceptual design of novel experimental equipment to simultaneously measure rheology and nanostructure under flow conditions using neutrons.

Wagner came to UD in 1991 to establish a world-class research program in complex fluids. He has worked in close collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology Center for Neutron Research in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

“Norman Wagner stands out for his indefatigable enthusiasm in applying his technical expertise to a very broad spectrum of problems,” said Abraham Lenhoff, the Allan P. Colburn Professor of Chemical Engineering at UD. “His advocacy for neutron scattering as a tool to probe molecular and microstructures has been especially prominent, and I have benefited via a number of collaborative projects recently. I have also come to realize that many researchers around the world have been served by his contributions as well, not just his UD colleagues, and so this award is richly deserved.”
Neutron scattering showing structure of shear thickening fluids under flow.
Neutron scattering showing structure of shear thickening fluids under flow.

Wagner’s work has garnered multiple accolades. In 2015, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineers and the National Academy of Inventors. In 2014, he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Neutron Scattering Society of America and won the Bingham Medal from the Society of Rheology. He is currently president of the Society of Rheology.

Before joining UD, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University, a doctoral degree at Princeton University, was a NATO Postdoctoral Fellow at Fakultät für Physik Universität Konstanz in Germany and a Director’s Postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Wagner will receive his prize and a $2,500 honorarium at the 9th American Conference on Neutron Scattering (ACNS 2018), to be held June 24 to 28 in College Park, Maryland.

Article by Julie Stewart