Engineering the future
After receiving a $400,000 grant to determine the origins of microscopic particles that can energize artificial muscles, two UH professors will have their work cut out for them for the next three years.
Pradeep Sharma, the Bill D. Cook chair assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Ken White, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Reliability of Ceramics, will attempt to find an array of piezoelectric materials that can be used as the source of innovative technologies within the coming decades.
"We’re working with new science and new discoveries," Sharma said. "It’s very exciting for me."
Piezoelectric materials, which include ceramics and crystals, generate electricity when put under stress. These materials, which have the potential to act as sensors and produce kinetic power, are used in cellular phones to generate the vibrate function.
For Sharma and White, these microscopic materials hold a greater importance as they can also be used to engineer prosthetic limbs.
In August 2007 the researchers received a $1.2 million grant to create a method of using this nanotechnology for the investigation of applications of particles.
With financial backing from the National Science Foundation and an innovative theoretical approach, the professors will be the first to conduct experiments with the piezoelectric materials.
"The purpose of this grant is to connect a theoretical basis to a very physical measurement along with each material," White said.
At this point piezoelectric materials pose a challenge to engineers because they are rare and often too fragile for practical applications.
"The problem is that nature has only given us a few materials that can act this way," Sharma said.
Sharma’s theoretical work linked a material’s hardness, size and ability to generate electricity. The team plans to assess the hardness of microscopic piezoelectric materials by making indentations on materials measuring less than one billionth of a meter long.
"We’re working on how the physical behavior of these materials work before we can get into the design," White said. "We’re hoping to provide a menu of materials that can be used 10 or 20 years down the road to develop this technology," White said.
If Sharma and White discover more piezoelectric materials with their studies, a greater range of applications will become available for the materials.
During their quest for new piezoelectric materials, Sharma will be constructing the theoretical basis for the research while White conducts the actual experiments.
"It’s one thing to think you have the theory all down, but when you start doing experiments, you start getting surprises," White said.