UND lab makes sterner stuff

Students get hands-on research experience in Materials Science Lab

Surojit Gupta, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, shows some of the raw materials and products used and produced in the Materials Science Lab in UND’s College of Engineering & Mines. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Surojit Gupta, a UND mechanical engineering associate professor, hands a visitor a small block of what appears to be shiny plastic. But it’s too heavy for plastic and too light for metal. What is it?

“If we had the same thing made out of steel, it would be twice as heavy,” he noted. “This is a very lightweight material. If you look at the luster, it has a metal-like appearance, but it’s not metal. It’s ceramic.”

Gupta explained that the material has the advantage of ceramics in that it can withstand high temperatures without melting – as metals tend to do – while remaining pliable like metal without becoming brittle – as ceramics tend to do. In the field of materials science in which Gupta specializes, it’s known as a MAB-phase material. For example, molybdenum, aluminum and boron reacts at high temperatures to form MoAlB, which is a type of MAB phase.

“These are the reasons the U.S. Army and NASA are very interested in this particular class of materials,” Gupta said. “They have high-fracture toughness and can be used for different types of demanding applications, like turbines, coatings and gear-based applications where you need less oil to function.”

Sabah Javaid, a Ph.D. student from Pakistan, works on a research project studying the use of corn byproducts to help heal bone injuries. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

High-tech materials

Gupta runs the Materials Science Lab in the College of Engineering & Mines in which students – ranging from undergraduates to Ph.D. candidates – in the advanced materials and manufacturing group engage in fundamental research funded by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, NASA EPSCoR and North Dakota Corn Council. In addition, there are joint agreements for ongoing collaborations with the U.S. Army Research Lab and the NASA Langley Research Center.

Mackenzie Short, a UND mechanical engineering graduate from Grand Forks, N.D., who’s been accepted into the CEM master’s program, and Daniel Trieff, a senior from Chaska, Minn., spent their summer working remotely on an internship with the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. They’re studying MAB-phase coatings for metals that will make NASA vehicles used for deep-space exploration more resistant to radiation, abrasion and corrosion.

“It’s a new material we’re making ourselves,” Short said. “We have to mix it up and press it so that the individual particles are closer together. That way, they actually interact under heat and become a MAB-phase metal.”

The pair is awaiting test results, but is encouraged by what they’ve discovered so far. They’re using a microencapsulation process that reduces the individual particles down to 44 micrometers or .0017 of an inch – the size of a dust particle. A polymer similar to that used for 3D printing is applies the ceramic particles to a metal surface.

“We’re going to be testing how wear-resistant it really is,” Short said. “The idea is to prolong the life of any equipment we send into space by having a wear-resistant and abrasion-resistant coating.”

Trieff said being involved in a NASA research project is beneficial to his educational goals.

“It’s definitely a pivotal turning point for my career,” he said. “It should help me get into grad school. I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

To the moon

Maharshi Dey, a Ph.D. candidate from India, is also working in Gupta’s materials science lab to develop high-temperature ceramics for NASA that could be used for missions to the moon, Mars or Venus.

“The biggest problem with ceramics is that they can go up to really high temperatures, but they’re brittle, which means they would not be used for any applications where you need it to be foldable or stretched,” he explained. “You can use metals, but they can’t go up to a high temperature because they have low melting points.”

Dey is studying layered ceramics that he compares to cards in a deck. A single card is easily folded, but layers of cards create far greater strength with the ability to bend without breaking.

“You get the best of metals, as well as the high temperature aspects of ceramics,” he explained. “It is also strong compared to many other ceramics. We’re making some new types of ceramics that haven’t been discovered.”

Tribology – the study of friction and wear on materials – is the area of specialization for Caleb Matzke, a master’s degree student from Hastings, Minn.

“Think of it as the rubber on the sole of your shoe,” he said. “I study the characteristics of how much it wears down over time, except I’m doing it with polymers and bearing steels.”

Maharshi Dey, a Ph.D. candidate from India, is helping NASA develop high-temperature ceramics used for deep-space exploration. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Matzke has been working on a project for the U.S. Army the past two years involving polymers with ceramic additives and how they wear under dry conditions or when exposed to different fuels in pump systems.

“What we’ve noticed in these different steels with the ceramic powders is that they have a very high hardness,” he stated. “Any sort application, such as in the auto industry, you could use these where there’s excessive wear and tear – where the need for high hardness comes into play. It’s a standard steel with a small amount of ceramic additive, so there’s very little change in weight.”

Ag products benefit North Dakota

The lab’s research not only benefits federal agencies looking for solutions to complex technical challenges, but can also help North Dakota’s agriculture industry by finding beneficial uses for corn byproducts that are often treated as waste. Gupta points out that this could help farmers deal with wide price fluctuations in agricultural products.

“If we can make wonderful materials out of ag-based products, then we can help our famers,” he said. “If we can add value to the products, it will give our farmers an additional revenue stream so they can sell what they’re now burning or throwing away. Another one of our goals is to make the ag industry more profitable.”

The potential of using corn-based products to create materials for the biomedical engineering field is being explored by Erica Eades, a temporary research assistant from East Grand Forks, Minn., who received her master’s degree last spring, and Sabah Javaid, a Ph.D. student from Pakistan. They’re studying an idea for bone tissue engineering using corn-derived materials and plastics to help heal bone injuries.

“If you get a fracture within your body, you could potentially utilize this to fill the void,” Eades explained. “It provides support to the area and stimulates the body’s natural healing process. It can help reduce the number of surgeries.”

The UND College of Engineering & Mines Materials Science Lab run by Surojit Gupta gives students hands-on research experience. Shown from left to right are: Sabah Javaid, Erica Eades, Maharshi Dey, Daniel Trieff, Gupta, Mackenzie Short, Negin Ziamahmoodi and Caleb Matzke. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Negin Ziamahmoodi is a senior from Iran majoring in mechanical engineering with a focus on material science. She originally came to UND as an aviation student, but after taking a course Gupta taught, she switched majors. During the summer, she worked in the materials science lab on a project using hemp and lignin from corn to filter water, but has been involved in other research projects as well.

Giving students his best

“It’s a very busy lab and I absolutely love it,” she said. “I’m learning to work with a lot of different materials. It’s a broad view on materials science, which I really appreciate.”

Gupta said that when students discover their passion for research, it underscores the rewards of teaching. He referenced a note and photo he received from a former student who recently completed his Ph.D. and accepted a job in industry.

“I like to tell my students science doesn’t sleep,” he said. “That’s what inspired this student to pursue his Ph.D. and then turn professional.

“It’s difficult to do teaching and research, but when you get a message like this, it inspires you to go out of your way to help students,” he continued. “That’s what we are here for – to help our students attain their goals and ambitions – and give them the best we can.”