Materials science and engineering faculty member receives NSF CAREER Award

Robert Hickey, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, stands in his laboratory space in Steidle Building.  Credit: Matthew CarrollAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Creating new complex materials that mimic biomaterials found in nature could lead to advances in diverse fields like infrastructure, health care and information processing.

Robert Hickey, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, is investigating new processes to identify and create these materials through a five-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Award.

The prestigious award supports junior faculty members who exemplify excellence in teaching, research, and integration of education and research to advance the mission of their organization, according to the NSF.

Hickey will use the funding to develop nonequilibrium polymerization processes, like those found in nature, to create hybrid polymer inorganic materials that exhibit multiple properties simultaneously.

“We want to develop a new materials processing method to create biologically inspired materials with multiple functions,” Hickey said. “For example, our skin has strain stiffening properties and can’t puncture easily because as you press on it, it stiffens to protect us.”

Creating these materials in the laboratory is challenging, Hickey said. The field often uses equilibrium processes, combining materials and hoping they form into useful complex materials.

For example, at equilibrium, oil and water prefer to separate into two phases. Shaking oil and water in a bottle and trapping the process of phase separation would lead to a nonequilibrium state.

“We are trying to trap a point that’s between the starting point and the end point,” Hickey said. “There is a process to go from point A to point B and what we want to do is figure out how to control that path and then stop that path where and when we want.”

Deciding where to stop along that path may allow scientists to develop materials with multiple, concurrent phases, like flexible materials with high conductivity.

Hickey will focus on finding materials that simultaneously have conductive and bendable properties that could advance flexible electronics, and materials with skin-like strain stiffening properties.

“Ultimately what we hope to do is make new morphologies that can be used in different technologies,” he said. “We’re trying to develop new nonequilibrium concepts to make new materials that could potentially have broad applications.”

Hickey said challenges remain in controlling and repeating the nonequilibrium reactions, as the pathway reactions take between the starting and end points is not always the same.

“What we are doing could open up a whole new area of materials if we can understand the process to get there,” he said. “This is really opening up a whole new way to think about materials design using nonequilibrium concepts.”

The funding also will allow Hickey to develop educational videos that feature his lab’s work and learning modules on polymers for undergraduate students at smaller Pennsylvania colleges who may not have access to the materials or facilities needed to study them.

Last Updated January 28, 2020