UND physicist awarded $600,000 research grant to study unique combination of materials

These materials, with ceramic-like and metal-like traits, could be used in many applications, including national defense

Groundbreaking research in materials science will be happening over the next three years at UND as a result of a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Through the DoD’s Defense Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (DEPSCoR), UND Assistant Professor Deniz Cakir has been awarded nearly $600,000 to discover and study new materials that show strikingly broad properties.

Specifically, Cakir and his collaborators will be studying MAB phases, a family of materials that have attracted attention due to their unique combination of ceramic-like and metal-like traits. For example, the materials show not only high melting points and strong corrosion resistance, but also excellent electrical and thermal conductivity, and magnetism at room temperature.

Once properly synthesized and understood, these materials can potentially find their way into many applications and fields, including areas vital to national defense.

Of more than 150 white papers submitted to the DEPSCoR program, only 17 projects nationwide were selected for funding totaling $10.2 million, including Cakir’s “Discovering New Atomically Laminated Transition Metal Borides with Diverse Properties,” the DoD reported.

Looking for more

Cakir, an assistant professor of physics and astrophysics in UND’s College of Arts & Sciences, will be working with Turan Birol, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, on the three-year project. A small team of UND graduate students and post-doctoral researchers also will take part.

A number of MAB phases are already known or predicted in computer models, but many more have yet to be studied in-depth, to the point of more fully understanding their properties.

“The list of potential applications for these materials is long, especially when considering the variations of crystalline structures that are possible within them,” Cakir said.

“The first goal is to discover new materials by working through combinations of the MAB family. Second, we want to understand the fundamental properties of these discovered materials, and how we can tune those properties for further research or application.”

Mark Hoffmann, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and associate dean for research at the College of Arts & Sciences, said the DoD program is consciously engaging with a wider variety of research universities to strengthen America’s research infrastructure and technical expertise. In turn, the universities’ science and engineering work will support the country’s National Defense Strategy.

Hoffmann also credited UND’s Division of Research & Economic Development, led by Vice President John Mihelich, for setting the stage for Arts & Sciences research such as Cakir’s to attract the DoD’s interest.

“It’s easy to imagine just how many areas materials science touches when considering military and non-military uses,” Hoffmann remarked. “This study will open new possibilities for applications using high-performance materials that can withstand greater temperatures, create more reliable mechanisms, store energy more effectively and so on.

“Dr. Cakir is truly on the cutting edge in this area of materials science, and this study can provide a great benefit in attracting UND’s students at all levels to this field of study. This area is already of great interest because it aligns with stated UND goals of research expertise. More broadly, this level of cooperation with the DoD can be an excellent indicator for future projects and collaboration.”

“I was thrilled to see Dr. Cakir secure the DEPSCoR award,” said John Mihelich, UND’s vice president for research and economic development.

“The award will support his innovative research and collaborations while serving as an important advance in our broader efforts across campus to grow research in National Security with the DoD, other federal agencies, and industry. We’re also striving to align these efforts with those across the state.

“All credit goes to Dr. Cakir and the support from Dean Rundquist and ADR Hoffman, and I look forward to their continued success,” Mihelich said.

Campus collaborations

While much of the discovery work will happen through state-of-the-art computational tools and supercomputing – through systems available at UND and in larger national laboratories – Cakir said he will be looking for opportunities to collaborate on campus when it comes to actually creating the materials.

“Computationally, we can discover a lot of materials,” Cakir said. “But experimentally, synthesizing the materials can be challenging. This is even true for MAB phases that we already know of.”

Similarly, developing high-quality samples from bulk materials is particularly difficult, Cakir said, and one of the aims of upcoming work is to streamline such processes. He referred to UND Associate Professor Surojit Gupta, a mechanical engineer with expertise in nanotechnology and sustainable materials, as someone with whom he hopes to work.

Cakir further credited UND in supporting his preliminary work, which was conducted with the help of graduate students and the substantial computational power and software made possible through the University, he said.

Said Hoffmann, “Dr. Cakir’s award is really the fruition of a lot of planning that went into building our capacities in this field. There have been investments in Arts & Sciences to bolster research areas where we can synergize with work already occurring on campus, and the alignment of Dr. Cakir’s talents and expertise are a testament to that process.”

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