Interdisciplinary team awarded NSF instrumentation grant - The University of Tulsa
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Interdisciplinary team awarded NSF instrumentation grant

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has granted a Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI) award of nearly $250,000 to a team of interdisciplinary scientists at The University of Tulsa. This award will support the acquisition of a custom testing instrument, with which to explore thermal and mechanical effects on a diverse range of materials.

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Will LePage

The group’s principal investigator (PI) is Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering William LePage (BS ’13). His co-PIs are Michael Keller (BS ’01) and Steven Tipton from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Hema Ramsurn of the Russell School of Chemical Engineering, and Miriam Belmaker of the Department of Anthropology & Sociology. Additional collaborators include Danielle Macdonald of Anthropology & Sociology and J.C. Stinville from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Delivering more than 350 pounds of dynamic force, the instrument weighs 11 pounds and fits inside an electron microscope. It can deliver more than 10 mechanical loading and unloading cycles per second while heating samples up to 1600°C, the highest temperature capacity for mechanical testing among Oklahoma universities.

One area of proposed investigation involves carbon/carbon (C/C) composites developed by Keller and Ramsurn. “These lightweight materials are ideal for high-temperature structural applications found in hypersonic aerospace vehicles, nose cones, rocket nozzles, heat shields, aircraft disc brakes, and nuclear fusion reactors,” explained Ramsurn. “Delamination, however, is one of the most frequently encountered modes of C/C failure, leading to catastrophic structural collapse. Our tests will enable unprecedented investigation of C/C crack mechanics.”

An additional area of collaboration for LePage and Stinville involves probing the deformation mechanisms of engineering alloys with the new instrument. “We will track nanoscale damage in materials with techniques that combine digital image correlation and scanning electron microscopy,” LePage said.

The system also has applications in archaeology. By examining scratches on the fossilized teeth of mammals, such as mice, some scientists say they can tell what food they ate, thereby gaining insight into the effect of climate on early hominids and other animals. “Some have argued, however, that those scratches, which my colleagues and I have observed using TU’s Sensofar Neox white-light confocal/interferometer, were made by sand and not by grains,” cautioned Belmaker. “The new instrument will be essential for establishing the truth of this matter.”

Beyond the discoveries that await, the investigators are excited by undergraduate students’ involvement through the Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge. “Our plans also include considerable outreach,” Belmaker commented, “such as lectures and demonstrations at Gilcrease Museum and Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance events.”

This NSF award 2320690 is jointly funded by the MRI, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and the division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI).