National Science Foundation Funds Big Idea in Small Engineering

An idea for a new way to test some of the smallest pieces of our planet has earned a large award—more than $2.2 million to be exact—from the National Science Foundation for a pair of UT professors in the College of Engineering.

Pharr

Pharr

George Pharr and Erik Herbert, both of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, helped come up with the concept for the “Development of and Broad-Based Materials Research with the Next Generation Nanomechanical Testing Laboratory” along with Warren Oliver of Nanomechanics Inc.

“This is a huge coup for our university, especially because it comes in the highly competitive realm of proposals worth more than one million dollars,” said Kurt Sickafus, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “This award and the work accomplished with it has the potential to impact advanced materials research across the world.”

Herbert

Herbert

Their idea, in the simplest of terms, seeks to address the next generation of nanomaterials studies by looking at what tools will be needed and doing so with a wide-ranging appeal across their field.

By making sure that technological advances are both applicable and open to such a large swath of materials scientists, everything from fuel cell research to designing more earthquake-resistant structures could be affected.

“The testing system we will develop will be the only one of its kind in the world and will allow us to test nano-sized objects at temperatures up to 1,100 degrees Celsius,” said Pharr, who is a joint UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory professor. “By obtaining data with high precision and at extremely high rates we can determine the strength of many of the small-scale objects that are fueling the nanotechnology revolution.

“Our data will be key to the successful development of many next-generation nano-devices.”

The team wants to create summer workshops for students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and will partner with a local small business, Nanomechanics Inc, to commercialize the new technology.

More than 70 percent of the funding—$1.54 million—will come through the NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation program, with the remainder coming through UT.

“In addition to developing and building the next-generation nanomechanical testing platform, we get to do it working alongside a number of the best and brightest minds in our field,” said Herbert. “We hope to develop advancements in our understanding of the fundamental aspects of materials, from elasticity to conductivity.”

“This has been a dream of mine seventeen years in the making.”

The project will last five years and will be housed in the Joint Institute of Advanced Materials at UT when complete.

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)