Third funding period for collaborative research center investigating soft matter simulation

German Research Foundation approves further four-year funding of the joint Collaborative Research Center/Transregio 146 on Multiscale Simulation Methods for Soft Matter Systems of Mainz University, TU Darmstadt, and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research

9 June 2022

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has agreed to finance another four years of development of soft matter simulation by the Collaborative Research Center/TRR 146. Researchers from the fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science have been working together in this CRC for eight years. It is run under the aegis of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) – with participation of TU Darmstadt and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research. In what is now the last funding period until 2026, the researchers will continue developing a fundamental method for computer-aided simulation of soft matter and investigating new aspects of that realm. The German Research Foundation will provide EUR 11 million to fund this project. Since its establishment in 2014, the CRC/TRR 146 on Multiscale Simulation Methods for Soft Matter Systems has gained considerable international recognition thanks to the way it combines fundamental research and outstanding algorithm development.

Modeling in different size and time scales

Multiscale modeling is a core aspect of theoretical physics and the materials sciences. "We use it to study an important class of materials, namely soft matter, in a variety of size and time scales," explained Professor Friederike Schmid of the Institute of Physics at Mainz University and spokesperson of the CRC/TRR 146. Soft matter is ubiquitous and includes a wide range of materials, from plastics, rubber, and paper to biological membranes and proteins as well as complex liquids such as oil, paint, and liquid crystals. The substances are not necessarily in solid or liquid form, but they share one characteristic property: At room temperatures, they show large responses to external stimuli. Tiny changes in the microscopic interactions can have huge effects on macroscopic properties. The versatility and responsiveness of soft materials thus make them attractive for various applications.

"If we want to better understand the behavior of these materials, this will only be practicable with the help of multiscale approaches, meaning we need to look at what is happening on a range of different scales simultaneously," emphasized Schmid. The properties of many materials cannot be understood by studying their structure and dynamics at just one size and time scale. Instead, these properties are often the result of an interplay of processes that occur across a variety of scales, often spanning orders of magnitude from sub-angstrom and picosecond dimensions to several micrometers, seconds, minutes, and years. For example, materials can eventually fail after years because of what happens on the atomic scale. Soft matter is therefore an ideal testing ground for developing new multiscale algorithms and analyzing properties from a mathematical perspective.

"The JGU Institute of Mathematics has made important contributions to our fundamental understanding here, while computer science is fostering the development of computer simulations with the help of machine learning methods," Schmid pointed out, highlighting the advantages of interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science. The CRC/TRR 146 strives to bring these disciplines together to develop methods that combine the best of different worlds and have a clearly established basis in physics and mathematics. Scientists from three institutions in the Rhine-Main region – Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, TU Darmstadt, and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz – are contributing their complementary expertise in this field.

Three main goals for the last funding period

Three main goals have been set for the third and final funding period. Firstly, the researchers intend to further improve their fundamental techniques, which are now focused in particular on non-equilibrium and inhomogeneous systems. Secondly, they aim to consolidate results to date by testing the new algorithms in a broader class of model systems. And thirdly, they will apply the new methods to a series of challenging real-world problems they have identified. "We have already achieved a lot, but we still have a long way to go", said Schmid. The long-term goal is to establish routine use of the multiscale techniques so that real-world applications for soft materials can be simulated. "We want to be able to make predictions on how the properties of materials will perform and suggestions on how to actually improve these. In the case of biological substances, we are interested in deciphering and precisely understanding the processes involved," Schmid concluded.

Approval of the CRC/TRR 146 represents recognition of the work of the Rhine-Main Universities

As outstanding research universities in the Rhine-Main area, Goethe University Frankfurt, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, and the Technical University of Darmstadt have joined together to form the Rhine-Main Universities alliance. The universities have worked in close cooperation with each other for many years, leading to an agreement to form a strategic alliance in 2015 to increase the partners' collective academic capacity. By joining together, the universities are able to complement each other's strengths in research and promote strong research partnerships, expand the course and degree offerings for their students, and strengthen the exchange of knowledge in the region as well as networking with society in general.