digital art illustration of an atom, with rings orbiting a nucleus. On the rings, orbiting the center, there are illustrations of a computer chip, a tree, a corn cob, batteries, humans, and a robotic looking cell, with wires coming out of it.
Illustration by Hannah Willinghamn

The University of Michigan was recently selected to head a $30 million collaborative complex particle research center funded by the National Science Foundation. The Center for Complex Particle Systems, or COMPASS, is an interdisciplinary, multi-university initiative completing research that spans physics to social science topics.

COMPASS director Nicholas Kotov spoke to The Michigan Daily about his lab, which works with the center and focuses on small-scale particle systems, which are large collections of particles that interact with each other in a variety of ways. Kotov told The Daily some of these systems have some interesting physical aspects that are worth studying. 

“It started from particle assembly,” Kotov said. “And my lab and I had been working on particle self assembly for a while and we started noticing that the particles form networks … These particles have interesting mechanical, optical and electrical properties.” 

Eight U.S. universities are involved in COMPASS including the University of Illinois, Chicago State University, Northeastern University, North Carolina State University, Wayne State University and the University of Southern California.

Kotov said studying microscopic particle systems can be more difficult than studying other kinds of interrelated social phenomena, like human networks or climate systems. He said gathering data on particle systems is challenging since the particles themselves are so small and require the use of specialized laboratory equipment to observe by graphing the “nodes and edges” of the particle system. 

“We need to have data,” Kotov said. “In human systems, in weather systems, in biomes and social networks, data is fairly easy to access … But in the nanoscale systems, things are actually expensive. Saving maps (of) a few billions of nodes and edges is an undertaking in itself.”

Kotov also said some of the applications of the work he does is focused on improving vehicle batteries — some of the tangible applications of particle system research — which means that the research being conducted by the University could one day have a global impact.

“We are very much focused on automotive and battery needs,” Kotov said. “(We want to approach it) from the fundamental and practical perspective, because then we can have a case for a center which is kind of global.”

Albert Liu is the head of the LEGOS lab, which studies colloidal electronic matter and models electronic devices after human cells. Liu, who also participates in research for COMPASS, spoke with The Daily about the diverse types and sizes of particles investigated by the center.

“We’re gonna go into talking and talking about different types of particles (which) are really a very broad concept,” Liu said. “There’s different scales: there are nanoparticles, there are these colloidal particles and then there are these larger mesoscales of cellular type particles, and (those that) have millimeter scale. … All of these are technically particles and are going to be the subject of inquiry at the center.”

The center uses abstract mathematical tools from graph theory to model particle systems. This allows researchers like Liu to understand specific engineering tasks within a mathematical framework.

“(We are) trying to use graph theory to describe the complex particles,” Liu said. “I’m telling you what our particles are and how we might be plugged into the center in some abstract way. And there’s a good amount of alignment between our vision and the vision of this (center).”

Rackham student Alex Takla, who is pursuing a doctorate in physics, is interested in particle systems. Though students cannot currently work for the center, he told The Daily he sees COMPASS as an exciting opportunity for the University to study large systems of particles in collaboration with researchers from other leading research institutions around the country.

Takla said the center’s interdisciplinary nature means there will be a diverse set of perspectives and ideologies contributing to various projects.

“It seems like whenever different people come together and think about a topic (from) different perspectives — whether it be an engineer’s perspective or physicist perspective or mathematician’s opinion — the more collaboration you have, the better,” Takla said.

Daily Staff Reporter Amer Goel can be reached at