Manufacturing takes a lesson from nature
Living systems achieve form and function in ways that have little resemblance to modern manufacturing: think digits of a hand, the veins of a leaf, or the seeds of a dandelion that disperse themselves in the wind.
Using nature as a model, University of Illinois researchers will develop a new technology for the processing of plastics and composites, critical elements in structures like aircraft, automobiles and wind turbine blades, where light weight and high-strength are required. Current manufacturing of these materials is costly, due to the large amounts of energy required. The project promises to dramatically reduce the cost of manufacturing high-strength composite materials.
Drawing inspiration from living systems, this fundamental research project will result in new plastic materials that require only small initial energy input to trigger the entire manufacturing process and dramatically reduce environmental impact. This new, more efficient method has significant potential to impact and dramatically improve U.S. economic competitiveness in the critical area of composites manufacturing.
Nancy Sottos, Willett Professor in the Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering at U of I will lead the team of researchers that includes three co-principal investigators: Jeffrey Moore, U of I Murchison-Mallory Professor of Chemistry and Beckman Institute director; Philippe Geubelle, Bliss Professor and Department Head of Aerospace Engineering at Illinois; and Aaron Esser-Kahn, associate professor in molecular engineering at the University of Chicago.
The team recently received a National Science Foundation award for $639 thousand for their project entitled, “LEAP HI: Manufacturing USA: Energy Efficient Processing of Thermoset Polymers and Composites.” LEAP-HI stands for Leading Engineering for America's Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure.
This award will enable highly collaborative, interdisciplinary research to develop a new manufacturing platform for structural polymers and composites based on an autocatalytic (self-propagating) polymerization reaction occurring in a system undergoing reaction and diffusion of its components.
The system uses the exothermic release of energy to provide a positive feedback to the reaction. In turn, this stimulates further exothermic energy release, and a self-propagating reaction front that rapidly moves through the material -- a process called frontal polymerization. Once triggered, the reaction progresses with zero-energy input.
The self-sustained propagation of a reaction wave through the material gives rise to entirely new ways of manufacturing high-performance composites using rapid, energy-efficient methods at greatly reduced costs, including 3D printing of thermosetting polymers and composites.
Controlling the reaction wave by simple thermal perturbations gives rise to symmetry breaking events that can enable complex, emergent (morphogenic) pattern formation. The biologically inspired concepts for manufacturing provide an ideal platform to inspire and educate the next generation of entrepreneurs, students, postdoctoral researchers, as well as the general public.
The abstract and other information regarding this award are available via the NSF Award Abstracts database at http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward.do?AwardNumber=1830635.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports research, innovation, and discovery that provides the foundation for economic growth in this country. By advancing the frontiers of science and engineering, our nation can develop the knowledge and cutting edge technologies needed to address the challenges we face today and will face in the future.