Vehicles have long been constructed primarily of steel because it is one of the strongest known materials. The relatively heavier weight of the metal, however, causes vehicles to burn large quantities of fuel, leading to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.
Srinivasan Srivilliputhur, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, will conduct a five-year research project studying ultra-light materials that could someday replace steel and lead to significant cuts in fuel consumption.
"We need to act fast to reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions," Srivilliputhur says. "Using ultra-light, but strong materials is one of the many ways we might be able to address global warming."
Srivilliputhur has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award, which is the most prestigious offered by the NSF for young researchers. The $430,000 grant supports early career development activities of educators who effectively integrate research and education within the context of the missions of their organizations.
Srivilliputhur's research will focus on magnesium-lithium alloys. Replacing many heavier automobile parts with lighter magnesium-based parts could reduce automobile weight and cut fuel emissions by 30 percent. Lithium is the lightest known metal and dissolves in magnesium. Combining these two metals could produce lightweight materials that revolutionize automobile construction.
The strength of magnesium-lithium alloys, however, is currently unstable. Typical operating temperatures in automobiles cause these alloys to soften.
Using computer simulation and experimentation, Srivilliputhur will research the fundamental factors that cause the materials to lose strength over time and what can be done to address the situation.
"Once we figure out why the deformation is happening, we can more easily determine the best way to prevent it," he says. "Answering those questions could produce materials that are lightweight, yet strong enough to construct modern, high-performance automobiles."
Srivillipithur is doing important work to understand the basic processes at the intersection of chemistry and materials science and engineering, says Tom Cundari, co-director of UNT's Center for Advanced Scientific Computation and Modeling, of which Srivilliputhur is a member.
"CASCaM is dedicated to providing an environment where bright and promising young assistant professors can come to UNT, build first-class research groups, obtain funding and succeed," says Cundari, a Regents Professor of chemistry. "This award helps demonstrate the power of that collaborative environment."
Rick Reidy, interim chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, says Srivilliputhur is the first in the department to win an NSF Career Award. He is the fifth at UNT. The four others are: Rada Mihalcea. associate professor of computer science and engineering; Mohammed Omary, associate professor of chemistry; Pam Padilla, associate professor of biology; and Angela Wilson, assistant professor of chemistry.
"This is very exciting for our department and the university as a whole," Reidy says. "Not only is he doing very exciting scholarly work that could transform automobile construction and lower energy costs, but he's also doing superior education outreach."
The second part of Srivilliputhur's CAREER award will focus on increasing the enrollment of blind students in science and engineering programs.
Srivilliputhur says he was inspired by his grandmother, who went completely blind after battling glaucoma. He will work to develop educational modules for a materials science and engineering course on symmetry and crystallography that could be taught to blind students and has recruited colleagues in biology, chemistry and physics to do the same.
Srivilliputhur will work with blind students and educators to develop the modules, which will incorporate Braille and other tools deemed useful.
"The question is: How can we engage senses other than sight?" Srivilliputhur says. "How can we teach blind students about science and nature and engineering? This is a very difficult, but worthwhile challenge."
Sarah Bahari with UNT News Service can be reached at Sarah.firstname.lastname@example.org.