MechSE professors make energetic (materials) team
Two MechSE professors are breaking new ground—and getting widespread attention in academia and industry—with the shock-physics research methods they have teamed up to develop.
Shao Lee Soo Professor Scott Stewart handles the computational modeling side of the research, while Professor Nick Glumac addresses the experimental. Their research into chemical reactions in condensed "reactive materials" has potential in military, electronics, biomedical, aerospace, and high energy density energy storage applications.
"There’s a whole class of condensed phase reactions that have potential, with a huge amount of energy liberated from them," Stewart said. "The molecules react in a very short length scale, and diffusion is very limited because these are dense materials. The reactions complete on very short, almost atomic length scales."
Involving materials such as titanium and boron, Stewart’s research on computational modeling of shock physics systems provides insights that would be nearly impossible to study by direct observation. The materials are not optically accessible, and that makes it challenging to understand the physics and chemistry in the material when they are deforming or under high pressure and temperature.
"It’s all computational modeling and materials science research, but specifically related to phase transformation and chemical reactions," Stewart said. "For everything we’re doing, we try to have to have an experimental context and a system. It's a niche subject, but it's a very fundamental subject."
Stewart's computational modeling work is closely matched to provide analysis and feedback for the experiments in Glumac's lab, that has wide-ranging and first of their kind capabilities that employ high temperature optical spectroscopy during the combustion of the reactive materials.
Glumac’s research makes use of the shock tube facility developed by MechSE research professor Herman Krier. Researchers have used shock tubes for decades for gases, but what makes MechSE's shock tube unique is that it is used for particles. Glumac said it is now "the premier way" to look at how energetic particles burn under the conditions they will be used in.
"Our teaming is a classic case where two people from entirely different backgrounds need each other," Glumac said. "And as a result we’ve found opportunities to work together, and it’s been effective."
The partnership has led to development of a unique core of expertise and capabilities, and the result is long line of companies and agencies wanting to fund projects with them.
"We are getting incredible opportunities these days," Stewart said. "And people recognize us as a team and seek us out."
One pair of grants held by the combined Glumac/Stewart team was awarded through the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which develops systems with the unique capability to defeat weapons of mass destruction. This project may help the government develop a way to combat chemical and biological agents in a manner that reduces the likelihood of unintended disbursement of those agents.
"Over the the last three or four years, by working together we’ve brought on all these new projects," Stewart said. "Our two groups together form a Center. It's not called a center, but that’s what it is."
They have used this funding to build a large and powerful team of colleagues within their research groups. From PhD students and in-house research engineers, to faculty across the campus and national laboratory fellows sprinkled around the U.S., they are tapping top minds to keep making substantial forward progress on every project.
"Scott’s just done a phenomenal job of collecting outstanding people to work as affiliates with this group," Glumac said. "Not only is he good by himself, but he's really good at getting people around him to tap into, to kind of leverage his abilities with theirs, and take it all to the next level. That’s a really powerful combination."
Stewart is also partnering with researchers from University of Southern California and Washington State University for a five-year, multiple-university research initiative, funded by the Office of Naval Research and a similar project with MechSE Professor Moshe Matalon, funded by the Air Force of Scientific Research (AFOSR), with the University of Missori and CalTech has just started . These project will further the fundamental understanding of energetic chemistry in condensed media, with Illinois doing continuum simulations and modeling in Stewart's group.
An additional grant from AFOSR will fund Stewart’s work in computational and applied mathematics looking at fundamental methods of high-order accuracy, multi-material simulation capabilities.
"We’re learning lots of things that people didn’t know before because we can actually run these controlled experiments," Glumac said. "It’s been a very powerful tool for us. We’re getting lots of continued mileage out of it."
Funding agencies now approach Stewart and Glumac, instead of the other way around, and each of them now manage approximately a million-dollar budget. This results in more time available to run their research programs.
"We’re getting a lot of attention, a lot of interaction," Glumac said. "I have visitors all the time from other universities and from industry as well."
"People come in to use our facilities to test their materials and to learn from our diagnostics."