The National Science Foundation granted a three-year, $424,000 award to Diana Lados, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and founding director of the university's Integrative Materials Design Center (iMdc) to support the development of a metal-ceramic composites manufacturing process.
Professor Lados will be the sole principal investigator, and will conduct fundamental and applied research to develop a new, nano-ceramic reinforced metal-matrix composite (MMC) production process. As described by the university, the program aims to address the limits of existing processes, to produce materials with new combinations of desirable properties and sustainability benefits.
Ceramic-reinforced MMC are produced by mixing ceramic particles within aluminum during processing, to enhance its strength and high operating temperature. The new technique that Lados is researching would form nano-scaled ceramic particles within the molten metal. The composite materials that would be produced would contain ceramic particles of the proper size, uniformly distributed bonded to the metal matrix.
She also will study the relationships between the microstructure of the composites formed with the new process and their mechanical properties, including fatigue and creep, which are critical considerations in structural and engine designs. And, she will develop processing protocols that can produce optimal microstructures and properties for various transportation applications.
Lados already has demonstrated the feasibility of the technique in research that was recognized with the 2011 Kalenian Award, which provided $25,000 in seed funding to support developments at WPI. Her ongoing research will focus on the fundamental mechanisms that drive the formation of the nano-scale ceramic particles, and investigate their behavior and stability at elevated temperatures.
According to WPI, the new process would be less expensive, more flexible, and more energy-efficient than existing MMC production methods, and may be used with a wide series of metal-ceramic systems to produce numerous structural components.
"This project is another significant step in a large ongoing research program dedicated to developing novel materials and processes using a combination of fundamental materials science knowledge, property evaluations, and computational modeling," according to Lados. "These materials and processes can help designers replace steel and cast iron in vehicles with lighter metals—including aluminum, titanium, and magnesium—to increase performance, reliability, and fuel efficiency. The ultimate goals of this work are to increase the nation's energy efficiency and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, while also helping American manufacturers enhance their competitive edge."
The NSF is a $7-billion-budget federal agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering, and funds approximately 20% of all federally supported basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities.
Lados earned two other NSF awards recently. In 2012 she received a $525,000 CAREER Award, and she was a co-principal investigator on a $467,000 Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) grant funding the acquisition of high-speed cameras with quantitative stereo imaging and digital image correlation.
She has also received funding from the U.S. Army and through iMdc, an industry-government-university research and educational alliance that she established and leads at WPI.