Ronald Cohen primarily studies materials through first principles research—computational methods that begin with the most fundamental properties of a system, such as the nuclear charges of atoms, and then calculate what happens to a material under different conditions, such as pressure and temperature. He particularly focuses on properties of materials under extreme conditions such as high pressure and high temperature. This research applies to various topics and problems in geophysics and technological materials.
Some of his work focuses on understanding the behavior of high-technology materials called ferroelectrics—non-conducting crystals with an electric dipole moment similar to the opposite poles found in a common bar magnet. He also looks at minerals in Earth’s deep interior and of materials that display interesting physical and chemical properties. Other researchers use Cohen’s results as a tool to interpret their observations and to design experiments.
Medical imaging, sonar, semiconductors, and other electronics devices can benefit from understanding ferroelectrics. Ferroelectrics are unusual in that their polarity can exist even in the absence of an electric field, and the direction of the dipole can change when an electric field is applied. These useful substances further exhibit the piezoelectric effect—they can translate mechanical energy into electricity. New piezoelectrics have ten times the coupling between mechanical and electrical energy, and could revolutionize medical ultrasound and naval applications. Cohen investigates the physics underlying their intriguing behavior and uses theory to search for even better substances.
Predicting how minerals behave at extreme pressures and temperatures in Earth’s interior is important to interpreting seismic data and to understanding the structure and dynamics of the planet. Cohen calculates what happens, for example, to iron—the major component of Earth’s core; transition metal oxides such as iron oxide (FeO), and high-pressure silicates such as MgSiO3, perovskite, alumina, and silica phases as pressure increases. Some work hones in on the temperature at Earth’s center through the computed elastic properties of iron compared with seismological data.
Cohen obtained a B.Sc. in geology from Indiana University in 1979 and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University in 1985. Before coming to Carnegie as a staff scientist in 1990, he was a research associate at the National Research Council from 1985-1987 and a research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory from 1987 to 1990. For more see the Cohen lab