Glossary of Science Terms and Concepts

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2D Materials: Also called “single-layer materials,” 2D materials are crystalline solids that are one to just a few atoms thick. They tend to be extremely strong, lightweight, flexible, and good conductors of heat and electricity. Graphene is the most well-known 2D material. 

Alloy: A metal made from two or more elements.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): This simply means intelligence in machines, in contrast to natural intelligence found in humans and other natural organisms. Learn more

Batteries: Batteries and similar devices accept, store, and release electricity on demand. Batteries use chemistry, in the form of chemical potential, to store energy, just like many other everyday energy sources. Learn more

Bioenergy Research: Studies focused on how to use crops and other agricultural materials to make biofuels and other bioproducts. Learn more

Biofuels: Liquid fuels produced from renewable biological sources, including plants and algae. Biofuels offer a solution to one of the challenges of solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources. These energy sources have incredible potential to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and yield environmental and economic benefits. Learn more

Caloric Cooling: When a material that exhibits a caloric effect is exploited in a device where application and removal of a field, for example magnetic or stress, is synchronized with the flow of a heat transfer fluid – usually water-based – to move heat from the cold end to the hot end of the device.

Caloric Effect: Reversible thermal changes that occur in certain materials when they are subjected to magnetic, electric, and mechanical changes.

Caloric Materials: Materials that change temperature up and down when they are exposed to varying magnetic, electric, or force fields. These heating and cooling effects are reversible, that is, they reverse from heating to cooling when the corresponding field changes in intensity.

Catalyst: A substance that speeds up a chemical reaction, or lowers the temperature or pressure needed to start one, without itself being consumed during the reaction. Learn more

Diffraction: Bending of waves around obstacles or through small openings. Diffraction takes place with sound; electromagnetic radiation, such as light, X-rays, and gamma rays; and very small moving particles such as atoms, neutrons, and electrons (which have wavelike properties).

Dynamic Nuclear Polarization (DNP): A hyperpolarization method used in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to enhance its sensitivity. DNP couples NMR spectroscopy to its sister technique: electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), which is used to detect the magnetic interaction of electrons, rather than atomic nuclei. Electrons are far more magnetic than nuclei and thus easier to detect. DNP enables NMR experiments that would normally take years to complete to be performed in minutes. Learn more from this video from Ames Lab.

Elastocaloric Effect: This effect happens when a material’s crystal structure changes when it is squeezed or stretched, causing the material to heat up or cool down.

Exascale Computing: The next milestone in the development of supercomputers. Able to process information much faster than today’s most powerful supercomputers, exascale computers will give scientists a new tool for addressing some of the biggest challenges facing our world. Learn more

Graphene: A one-atom thick layer of carbon whose atoms are in a specific hexagonal arrangement. It is a billion times thinner than a sheet of paper and significantly stronger than steel. It is the most common and well-studied 2D material.

Machine Learning: The process of using computers to detect patterns in massive datasets and then make predictions based on what the computer learns from those patterns. Learn more

Magnetocaloric Effect: This effect happens when a material’s magnetic structure is altered when it is exposed to an increasing or decreasing magnetic field, causing the material to heat up or cool down.

Mechanochemistry: Refers to chemical reactions triggered by input of mechanical energy into a system containing solid reactants, usually around room temperature . The most common technique is using a kind of a milling device, for example a ball mil. This method is interesting to researchers because it requires no heating and is solution-free, and therefore, is energy-saving and eliminates hazardous waste.

Microbiology: The study of microorganisms that are usually too small to be visible with the human eye without a microscope. Learn more

Nanoscience: The study of matter at the nanoscale—dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers or 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Learn more

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR): A spectroscopy method that is commonly used for the atomic-scale characterization of molecules and materials. Some elements have atomic nuclei that behave has miniature bar magnets. If they are placed in a strong magnetic field, they will interact and align with it. NMR spectroscopy allows scientists to measure the strength of the interaction between the nuclei and this field. This strength depends on the chemical structure of the material, which ultimately helps scientists to figure out how atoms are organized in a material, and how this affects the material’s function. NMR spectroscopy is also the parent of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The only difference between the two is that, in MRI, the instrument controls the strength of the interaction and makes it dependent on the position of the atoms rather than their atomic-scale structure. Watch the Ames Lab 101 video explaining NMR.

Photovoltaic: The conversion of light into energy using semiconducting materials. Learn more

Polymer: A substance or material made up of very large molecules, called macromolecules, that are composed of several repeating units. Polymers can be natural or synthetic and include materials such as DNA, proteins, minerals, plastics, concrete, glass, and paper.

Quantum Computers: Computers that consist of quantum bits, or “qubits,” that play a similar role to the bits in today's digital computers. The laws of quantum mechanics allow qubits to encode exponentially more information than bits. Learn more

Quantum Materials:  These are materials where the extraordinary effects of quantum mechanics give rise to exotic and often incredible properties. Examples of these materials include superconductors, complex magnets, and topological materials.

Quasiparticle: A disturbance in a medium that behaves like a particle. A medium in physics is a substance that transfers the energy or light from one place to another.

Spectroscopy: Analysis of any interaction between matter and any portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, including absorption, emission, scattering, etc. Traditional spectroscopy involves the visible spectrum of light, but X-ray, gamma, and UV spectroscopy are also valuable techniques.

Standard Model of Particle Physics: Scientists’ current best theory to describe the most basic building blocks of the universe. It explains how particles called quarks (which make up protons and neutrons) and leptons (which include electrons) make up all known matter. It also explains how force carrying particles, which belong to a broader group of bosons, influence the quarks and leptons. Learn more

Superconductivity: The property of certain materials to conduct direct current (DC) electricity without energy loss when they are cooled below a critical temperature. These materials also expel magnetic fields as they transition to the superconducting state. Learn more

Topology: The study of the geometric properties and spaces that are not affected by continuous changes in shape or size. In materials science, this refers to “topological materials” which are materials that retain their basic properties under continuous deformation such as stretching, bending, or twisting.

Ultrafast Science: The study of processes in atoms, molecules, or materials that occur in millionths of a billionth of a second or faster. Learn more