New network science center aims to revolutionize large-scale manufacturing with discovery of new solid materials

network science model
A team of Northeastern researchers will be part of an effort to establish a center to study new ways of harnessing the power of network thinking to engineer new “shapeable particle-based matter.” Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Northeastern will soon embark on a collaborative project to bring the methods of network science to the world of small particles and novel materials, with help from a substantial National Science Foundation grant. 

A team of Northeastern researchers, helmed by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science and a Distinguished University Professor, will be part of an interdisciplinary, multi-university effort to establish a center to study new ways of harnessing the power of network thinking to engineer new “shapeable particle-based matter,” the grant proposal reads. 

headshot of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Disbursed across five years with the potential for an additional five years of funding, the award would establish a “Center for Complex Particle Systems,” dubbed COMPASS, that would house and promote research experiments designed to probe specifically “colloidal” particles for potential new applications, on the one hand, while offering “social justice and economic opportunities for disadvantaged high school students, minorities and veterans,” on the other, according to the project’s aims.

The COMPASS project will receive up to $30 million in funding across a five-year period. As the world’s leader on network science, an interdisciplinary team at Northeastern’s Network Science Institute has been exploring the underlying networks present in systems that range, among numerous others, social networks, the internet, the ecosphere, brain connections and epidemic models of disease spread, including COVID-19.

Broadly construed, network science is the study of such wide-ranging networks (social, biological, political), with the goal of better understanding the interconnections, processes and unexplored links in complex systems — how they might resemble other natural or social systems in structure. Most academic fields contend with networks, says Barabasi, whose work in mapping part of the topography of the World Wide Web led to the discovery of scale-free networks in 1999.

In addition to the University of Michigan and Northeastern, partner institutions include University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Chicago State University and the University of Southern California. The multi-university team “unites scientists specializing in theory, modeling, simulation, computation, experimentation and manufacturing of particle-based materials,” the proposal reads. 

Experiments will deploy a set of tools and theoretical approaches — graph theory, machine learning and advanced microscopy, among others — to probe the colloidal particles, with the goal of discovering new materials that could potentially be used in large-scale manufacturing.

“There is an increasing realization that networks could also be important in material science,” Barabasi tells Northeastern Global News. “I was a material scientist before I started to work on network science, so this kind of a research opportunity with UMichigan allows us to think about how we can take what we’ve learned from network science over the last 20 years to develop new kinds of materials or new applications.”

Every material constitutes a network, Barabasi says. Materials are made up of atoms connected by chemical bonds; they can be, as he says, “regular,” like a diamond lattice, or they can be “irregular,” or amorphous materials. 

“In general, the belief is that whatever nature gives us in terms of bonds is what we have to work with,” Barabasi says. “However, network science as a discipline has shown us that there are many different ways to build a network.”

“This particle-based matter is the focus of COMPASS, which will bring together a team of theoretical, experimental and computational researchers to develop the science and technology necessary to establish a much deeper understanding of particle-based matter as complex systems,” the federal agency states. “By leveraging the relationship between complexity and functionality, the center aims to ignite a revolution in 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing with materials with customizable properties.”

The National Science Foundation grant is provided to institutions whose focus is on “creating new scientific paradigms, establishing entirely new scientific disciplines and developing transformative technologies which have the potential for broad scientific or societal impact.” 

Barabasi and his team say they expect to “fundamentally transform the discipline of colloidal science and to engender transformative changes in multiple areas of engineering and particle-based manufacturing.”

“I’m very excited that the NSF has provided a five plus five-year funding opportunity,” he says. “This coupling between our team and Michigan really provides an environment to develop new theoretical ideas that could be tested experimentally. Additionally, the center would offer a pathway for potential applications and spin-offs as well.” 

“The question I am most excited about is, if you can print any kind of material network, how would you design the material to have interesting properties?” Barabasi says. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.