Magic ? No, materials science

In their quest to improve ceramics, metals and other materials, materials science students imagine the possibilities, says UND’s Surojit Gupta in his Faculty Lecture

Surojit Gupta, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UND, holds a packet containing one of the products of his Materials Science lab. Gupta used his recent Faculty Lecture to describe his research and his students’s work. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Don’t misunderstand. Materials science is a highly technical field, so almost any discussion among practitioners is going to involve words such as MAX Phases, nano-lignin, polyhydroxyalkanoates and thermoplastic aliphatic polymers.

But don’t let those words scare you, or you’ll miss the fun, said Surojit Gupta in his UND Faculty Lecture last week.

Yes, fun — a word that not only motivates Gupta and his students, but also helps keep materials science in perspective.

“This is great, great fun,” Gupta said in his lecture.

For materials science is nothing less than the study of “stuff” — the materials that every product in the human environment is made out of. Which means that once students learn the fundamentals of the science, they can turn their attention to the fun: the process of improving those materials, plus developing whole new materials never before seen.

And that’s exactly what Gupta and his team do.

When it comes to the structures, tools and other materials that surround us, what is science fiction today is likely to be established fact tomorrow, Gupta said in his talk. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

‘Beam me up’

“I’m a big sci-fi fan, so the best way that I can illustrate this is with some pictures from science fiction movies,” said Gupta, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UND.

Take “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the 1968 epic about space travel. In one scene (as a slide from Gupta showed), a spaceship crew member videochats with his family back on Earth.

The exchange uncannily anticipates Skype — a technological advance that owes much to materials science.

Or the original, 1960s-era “Star Trek” TV series, whose hand-held communicators (another slide) foreshadowed cell phones and even helped inspire the flip-phone design. Materials science helped make those advances possible, too, Gupta said.

Or “Total Recall” from 1990, where the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger jumps into a self-driving car.

Or another “Star Trek” reference, this one from the 1986 film, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” “Transparent aluminum,” breathes an Earthbound, 1980s-era scientist in that film, when he’s shown the formula for the material by the Enterprise’s time-traveling Mr. Scott.

“Transparent aluminum,” reads a headline in a 2009 edition of ScienceDaily, which Gupta flashed on the screen after showing the “Star Trek IV” clip.

The ScienceDaily text continues, “Transparent aluminum previously only existed in science fiction, featuring in the movie ‘Star Trek IV.’ But the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetery science and nuclear fusion.”

Fun is right, Gupta said.

“This is just to show you how materials that people have been dreaming about can be made real,” Gupta said.

That’s what Gupta’s talk — which was titled, “Imagine materials: Next-generation functional materials for advanced applications” — was all about.

Before his Faculty Lecture, Gupta spoke with  Brian Tande, interim dean of the UND College of Engineering & Mines. Tande introduced Gupta as “someone whom I honestly believe is a future Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor on this campus.” Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Imagine that

UND’s Faculty Lecture Series got started back in 1954 with a goal of cultivating a collegial atmosphere on campus and helping faculty and students learn more about the University’s various areas of research. And with his standout record of winning patents, publishing technical papers and training students who’ve gone on to be leaders in the field, Gupta is a perfect candidate to deliver a Faculty Lecture, said Brian Tande, interim dean of the UND College of Engineering & Mines, when introducing his colleague.

“As interim dean, I can tell you that lots of people have an impact. But not as many have a positive impact, and certainly not as positive as Surojit has had,” Tande said to appreciative laughter.

Gupta chose the term “Imagine Materials” for the title of his talk deliberately. “An important part of this presentation is the imagination part,” Gupta said to the audience.

Take “ductile ceramics,” a focus of Gupta’s lab.

Ceramics are one of the four primary general classes of materials, the other three being metals, polymers and composites. Some great advantages of ceramics are their strength, wear resistance, performance at high temperatures and insulation properties, Gupta explained.

A significant disadvantage is ceramics’ brittleness. Hence, the search for “ductile ceramics,” or ceramics that could be dented or deformed without fracturing.

Gupta called up a slide showing a deck of cards being flexed.

“Now, imagine” — there’s that word — “you can can design a ceramic material with a layered structure like a deck of cards,” he said. “”Like you can deform a deck of cards, you can deform this material, making it very ductile.

“So, this is the design of a ductile ceramic. And there has been a lot of research going on about it here at UND.”

Or take self-lubricating materials, another specialty of Gupta and his lab. In cooperation with the U.S. Army, Gupta is helping to design materials that can withstand extreme heat, meaning that devices built from it would not need oil for lubrication.

Or take the remarkable innovation known as bioplastics. “As you know, the plastics that we currently use do not biodegrade and are an environmental nuisance,” Gupta said.

“Now, imagine that you could make plastics from renewable sources and that the material would biodegrade.” In a world in which a major portion of plastic waste gets landfilled, and where that landfilled plastic potentially can leak pollutants into the soil and water for 1,000 years, “obviously this would have some very interesting applications,” Gupta said.

But that particular science fiction is on the verge of becoming science fact. That’s thanks to research at institutions such as UND, where a project being funded by the North Dakota Corn Council is making bioplastic and functional materials made from corn.

After his Faculty Lecture, Gupta accepted a thank-you and a framed certificate from Dr. Joshua Wynne, interim president of UND. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

‘Living concrete’ and other innovations

Gupta described more projects that his team has underway. Then he closed with a few more movie slides, each of them showing futuristic materials-science projects now unfolding around the world.

The invisibility cloak made famous by Harry Potter? In 2018, Global News Canada reported that “a team of researchers in Montreal claims to have successfully rendered an object invisible to broadband light, using a new technique dubbed ‘spectral cloaking.’”

The self-healing armor that protected “Iron Man”? According to ScienceFocus.com, “scientists have developed what they call living concrete by using sand, gel and bacteria.

“Researchers said this building material has structural load-bearing function, is capable of self-healing and is more environmentally friendly than concrete – which is the second most-consumed material on Earth after water.”

Clearly, materials scientists are having a lot of fun now. And rest assured, they’re going to be having a lot more fun in the future, Gupta said.