Three materials professors awarded NSF Early Career Awards

Nasim Alem, left, Allison Beese and Ismaila Dabo, all assistant professors in the department of materials science and engineering, were granted an Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation, a distinction for each that comes with five years of financial research support totaling more than $500,000.  Image: Penn State Three materials professors

David Kubarek [Penn State News]

April 10, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When a faculty member is granted an Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), it’s an honor for their career and department. But, when three members earn that distinction, as faculty in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering did this year, it’s three times the accolades for the department.

Nasim Alem, Allison Beese and Ismaila Dabo, all assistant professors in the department, earned the award that supports junior faculty who conduct innovative research, have shown excellence in teaching, and are able to success fully integrate the two. For each, the award provides five years of financial support totaling more than $500,000.

Alem’s research will explore strategies on how to control the structure for materials containing atoms of more than two different chemical elements, or alloys through novel synthesis strategies. The research has a potential to design materials with controllable thermal, electronic, optoelectronic and magnetic properties in wide ranges, which is key to designing devices for heat dissipation applications, energy storage, electronics, optoelectronics and thermoelectrics.

Beese’s research focuses on revealing and quantifying the process-structure-mechanical property relationships dictating the deformation and failure behavior of materials, or why they fail. Understanding these mechanics, she said, will help us more effectively use existing materials as well as tailor and design new materials. Through experiments and simulations, she’ll study how metallic components made by additive manufacturing fail, and formulate models that describe their fracture behavior. This research has the potential to enable the adoption of additive manufacturing, impacting fields such as biomedical, energy and defense.

Dabo will analyze materials designed to improve artificial photosynthesis, which emulates the process plants use to convert carbon dioxide and water into nutrients, to create carbon-neutral fuels. These fuels hold distinct advantages in that, when burned, they don’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions because they are created by extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These fuels can provide an alternative energy source for vehicles such as airplanes and tractor-trailers, which can’t feasibly be fueled with electricity.

“Penn State has long been a leader in materials science,” said William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “We’ve created an environment where senior members of the department invest time in mentoring junior faculty. These award winners have taken full advantage of this environment and receiving these awards will help our highly ranked department remain on top.”

Dabo said the groundwork senior members of the department laid for junior faculty has fostered success and will continue to do so.

“We have a lot of excellent mentoring from senior faculty. They help us with our careers, proposals and research, and I think that’s the reason we were successful. We get a lot of support from the department,” Dabo said.

Alem has long been intrigued by the concept of using alloying or doping to create new crystals with dramatically different properties than existing materials, and she’s glad the NSF also deems it an area worth exploring.

“We are trying to create materials with unprecedented properties so we can, for example, design devices that can have both heat dissipation and electrical conductivity properties,” Alem said. “These materials can be very unique, and that will have direct impact in areas such as energy storage and transfer. The NSF cares about how this basic science is going to impact technology, and hopefully we will have a big impact on where the technology will go.”

Alem plans to include students and graduate students in her research and plans to include educational programs for high school students and teachers as part of the grant.

Beese said the award will allow her to develop computational models that predict how metallic materials perform in load-bearing applications, and it will also allow her to carry out broad educational outreach programs aimed at increasing an appreciation for, and participation in, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“The project integrates research, education and outreach, and aims to use public interest in additive manufacturing as a vehicle to excite and educate pre-college, undergraduate and graduate students about STEM, and will also focus on increasing female participation and retention in these areas,” Beese said.

Using advanced computing centers at Penn State, Dabo will run models in search of computationally optimized materials that could be used to more efficiently convert the sun’s energy to liquid fuels.

“There are a lot of materials that can convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into chemicals,” Dabo said. “The problem is that a lot of light that goes into the material isn’t absorbed, so what we are doing is looking at a family of materials that can absorb sunlight much more efficiently. By making a small chemical transformation to the material, there is a chance to dramatically increase its ability to absorb sunlight.”

Alem received her doctorate in materials science from Northwestern. Beese received her doctorate in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dabo received his doctorate in materials science and engineering from MIT. All three joined Penn State in 2013.