Friday, December 14, 2012

Materials Science Research Professors Work to Solve Critical Challenges

Professors James Burns (MSE ’06) and Jiwei Lu are active contributors to the research environment at the Engineering School since joining the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) several years ago.

Burns’ research evaluates the effects of the environment in which an engineering material is placed on its mechanical behavior. Burns cites two reasons for his interest in this field. The first is the “broad real-world applicability of this discipline, from medical implants interacting with bodily fluids, to oil pipelines, to nuclear power, automotive, aerospace, marine, bridge, hydrogen fuel transport/storage and a myriad of other applications where the operating environment interacts with the mechanical properties of a component.” The second is the potential for the scientific knowledge gained from his research to “impact real-world engineering problems.” To sum up, the professor says, “This variety is exciting and challenging.”
Professors James Burns

Currently, Burns is investigating new ways to predict the structural lifespan of the aluminum alloys used in airframes. Specifically, he has noticed “order of magnitude increases in the material properties” when testing these materials at the low temperatures found at the altitudes at which airplanes fly, rather than in the ambient laboratory conditions that have been used as testing environments prior to this. By better understanding the way these airframes fatigue, airlines will be able to save money on maintenance, as well as improve safety. As Burns says, “improper repairs can often cause more damage than originally present.”

Burns has had direct impact on students in the department as well. He joined the faculty in 2011 after separating as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, using what MSE department chair Professor William Johnson describes as Burns’ “well-honed organizational skills” to design and implement an advanced independent project for the engineering science program. He also established a fall symposium for fourth-year undergraduate students to present their research and design proposals to their fellow students and to Engineering School faculty. In the spring, a second fair is planned to showcase the finished projects. Johnson calls the symposium a “critical addition to our academic program.”

In addition to his three doctoral students, Burns also involves undergraduate students in his research work. Douglas Bae (Engr Sci ’14) is working on “validating and extending,” a methodology developed by Burns to “predict the remaining useful life of corroded components.” Burns says this student’s work will help “justify a paradigm shift in the airframe structural integrity world: going from a find-and-fix approach to a modeling approach, which allows maintenance to be safely delayed until more skilled personnel can properly address the damage.” This approach will help reduce maintenance costs in machinery in general and decrease the likelihood of costly repair mistakes.

Professor Jiwei Lu

Professor Lu, who studied at Tsinghua University in Beijing prior to earning his doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2005, joined the department in 2006 and became a member of the faculty in 2008. His research focuses on learning the fundamental properties of the still-mysterious compound vanadium dioxide and other strongly correlated oxides, with the intention of developing them into new types of potentially useful nanoelectronic devices. Another research interest is multiferroic thin films, useful in spintronics, a cutting-edge branch of electronics that manipulates the “spin” of electrons. This technology could be used in the development of a new generation of information processing and storage.

According to Johnson, Lu already has a strong research record and is also an “enthusiastic” teacher. He has taught several graduate and undergraduate courses, as well as an introduction to physics course for nonmajors. “The goal of the Engineering School is to provide an excellent education to undergraduate and graduate students in a thriving research environment,” Johnson said. “It is always good to have people in the department who can contribute in both areas.”

Johnson appreciates the contributions of both professors to the MSE department, saying they “bring enthusiasm for their research to the department, which helps to attract academically strong graduate students into our programs.”

from E-NEWS |  By Nathan Hunt (’16)