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UIC scientist takes research to the extreme

Russell Hemley wearing safety glasses and working on a scientific instrument

UIC is home to one of the nation’s foremost scholars in physics, chemistry and materials science.

In a prominent career spanning four decades, Russell Hemley has explored the behavior of matter and materials in extreme environments, particularly high pressures and temperatures.

“This is an exciting area because it has implications for a broad range of basic science and technological challenges. Everything from fundamental physics through understanding nature of the cosmos in terms of the materials that comprise the visible universe,” said Hemley, a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Chair in the Natural Sciences and professor of physics and chemistry. “Also on the technological side, we’re very interested in using extreme conditions of pressure and temperature to make new materials that could be important to address societal challenges and revolutionize various technologies.”

His research programs have been supported by $175 million from private foundations and the federal government, including the Department of Energy, Department of Defense and National Science Foundation.

Working in cross-disciplinary fields like chemistry and physics presents opportunities that are “ripe” for discoveries and impacts on basic science and society, said Hemley, who notes the importance for UIC, and universities as a whole, to embrace the chase to solve these grand challenges.

“We have made a number of discoveries over the years, for example, room temperature superconductivity, synthesis of single crystal diamond, studies of Earth and planetary materials that help us understand the nature of planets and their formation, evolution and current state,” he said. “We’re interested in doing more of that and expanding to other areas, other materials as well as other kinds of problems.”

The superconductivity finding is notable since superconductors carry electricity without any energy loss due to resistance, so superconductors that can operate at or near room temperature would revolutionize energy efficiency in a broad range of consumer and industrial applications.

Hemley’s lab previously discovered the current highest temperature superconductor, lanthanum decahydride, which starts superconducting at temperatures as high as 8 degrees Fahrenheit, but also requires enormous pressures as high as 22 million pounds per square inch, or nearly 1,400 times the pressure exerted by water at the deepest part of Earth’s ocean.

He joined UIC in 2019 from George Washington University. The bulk of his career has been at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where he was based in the Geophysical Laboratory as a fellow (1984-1987), staff member (1987-2016) and director (2007- 2013).

He is also co-founder and manager of the High-Pressure Collaborative Access Team, a research consortium at Argonne National Laboratory, and is the former co-executive director of the Sloan Deep Carbon Observatory.

Hemley has earned prestigious appointments as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, member of the National Academy of Sciences, a corresponding fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Honoris Causa Professor of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“I came to UIC because I wanted to work in a different environment, Also, I was impressed by the efforts that were being put into stepping up the research and education here in Chicago. On top of that, I’ve been working for many years at Argonne National Laboratory and building programs there,” he said. “I think there is an opportunity for UIC to step up and be more of a national resource for the fields I’m working in. At the same time, we have the unique aspect of being a Minority-Serving Institution in an urban environment, and thus training underrepresented students and other researchers in these fields.”

Hemley has backed up that commitment by helping to bring grants to UIC that support the next generation of scientists and underrepresented students.

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration awarded $8 million over four years to UIC earlier this year for Hemley to lead a multisite, interdisciplinary center focused on research, training and technique development in the study of materials in extreme conditions.

He is the principal investigator on a $2.25 million, five-year grant to establish a Research Center of Excellence by the U.S. Army through a program that aims to expand and diversify its research base through partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.

In October 2020, the Department of Defense awarded a $3 million, three-year award to establish an undergraduate research mentoring program in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with a focus on engaging undergraduate student veterans and underrepresented students.

“That was part of the draw of coming here and sort of help this national need to further representation of underrepresented groups in the STEM fields and in our area in particular. It’s a priority for the country, so we’ve been able to take advantage of the opportunities to bring some of that funding to UIC,” he said.

Hemley is impressed with the quality and work ethic of UIC students who are prepared for a wide variety of careers through these new programs.

“We hope we can make a difference in bringing these students into the field and further their research and training so they can realize their potential in these fields, which are very important for the country as a whole and for the world as a whole,” he said.

As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, he began as a philosophy major but grew more interested in the foundational aspects of physical science and solving problems at a technical level that ultimately relates to bigger philosophical questions. This drew him to chemistry, a central field of study where he could explore a wide range of interesting scientific challenges and also gain technical training that would benefit his job prospects.

He started out working on molecular systems in physical chemistry and later was drawn to study the behavior of molecules and materials under unusual conditions of pressure and temperature. Hemley later earned his master’s and PhD in chemistry at Harvard University after being encouraged by a professor who inspired him by his genuine enthusiasm for scientific discovery.

“What he was able to do was to show the tremendous fun and excitement, but at the same time the importance of doing research and thinking boldly, thinking outside of the box and being iconoclastic. I found all of that really exciting because it was not typically the kind of message you get from science textbooks,” he said.

It’s a characteristic that has remained with Hemley, whose lab and classroom approach stresses the importance of creativity in the scientific research process.

“It is important to emphasize that in the classroom — the creative side — as opposed to just memorizing topics or learning scientific terminology and the logic needed to address a scientific problem.”