The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation named assistant professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Shell as one of its Sloan Research Fellows last week, awarding him two annual grants of $50,000 each.

Shell was recognized for his use of computer simulations to analyze the formation of nanomaterials, which aims to further scientific understanding of these biological structures and their formation at the molecular level to offer a framework for the synthesis of similar materials that could be used to improve battery efficiency, among other purposes. Shell is one of 126 award recipients throughout North America this year and the 15th scholar at UCSB to be honored in the past eight years.

According to Shell, understanding how atomic formations occur could be the key to developing synthetic versions of organic materials that would serve in the development of very small devices — a goal shared across scientific disciplines.

“As engineers, we’re kind of always trying to figure out how to make things smaller, functional devices that are shrinking down to the scale of just atoms and molecules,” Shell said. “So the interesting thing is, biology, for a long time, has figured out how to solve this problem, how to make very small functional machines and devices.”

Shell said the computer simulations built by his research group serve to delineate the complex structures of certain amino acids that are able to independently carry out a wide range of biological functions.

“Our real goal is to figure out, at a very fundamental level, what’s special about proteins and peptides,” Shell said.

According to Shell, one of the biological materials under analysis — nanotubes, or molecularly-sized hollow cylinders formed by peptides — are stronger than any other biomaterial and their synthetic formation could yield more efficient electrodes and aid in the creation of microscopic wires.

Nanotube research is crucial as there is little known about them despite their great potential to foster technological improvements, Shell said.

“Our challenge, really, [is that] no one knows how these nanotubes form at all. It’s completely unknown; there’s no molecular hypothesis really for how they assemble into these tubes and that’s really critical information to bring that technology to a level of broader use,” Shell said. “Without a fundamental understanding of what’s happening at the molecular level, we are searching in the dark.”

Shell’s research created several preliminary hypotheses on nanotube formation and generated knowledge regarding a class of peptides involved in the emergence and continuance of protein-based diseases, including Alzheimer’s and mad cow disease.