Mechanical Engineering's Dr. Ryu to Lead NASA EPSCoR Grant

Mechanical Engineering's Dr. Ryu to Lead NASA EPSCoR Grant
Ryu to develop autonomous structural composites for next-generation unmanned aircraft systems

January 2, 2018

Dr. Don Ryu, Mechanical EngineeringSOCORRO, N.M. -- Dr. Donghyeon Ryu, assistant professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department, has landed a NASA EPSCoR grant of $750,000 to complete a three-year project to develop novel structural composites for NASA’s next generation of unmanned aerospace vehicles.


The EPSCoR funding will support one Ph.D. student, one master’s student, and several undergraduates on a Senior Design Clinic team in the Mechanical Engineering Department and the Materials Engineering Department. The research team also includes Dr. Nikolai Kalugin, Dr. Andrei Zagrai, and Dr. Bin Lim at Tech and professors at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University.


Dr. Van Romero, V.P. of Research at NMT, said this project will contribute to NASA’s mission to safely and effectively explore space via autonomous vehicles.


“This is a challenge for NASA to come up with materials that will survive the rigors of the mission,” Romero said. “There are a lot of extreme environments that these space vehicles have to deal with – temperature swings, extreme gravity during launch, and a radiation environment that is hostile to materials.”


The three-year project began earlier in the fall 2017 semester. Ryu has purchased materials and is now developing the novel composite. The end goal is to have multifunctional composites that can detect damage without external electrical power. In addition, the composites will actually harvest energy from ambient vibrations through coupled mechanical-radiant-electrical energy conversion mechanism; a mechanoluminescent layer that emits light in response to mechanical stimuli will convert mechanical energy to radiant energy. A photovoltaic layer will convert radiant energy to electrical energy while exhibiting self-sensing capability.


“That’s important for unmanned aerospace vehicles,” Ryu said. “A big hindrance to other systems is the energy source, which needs to be refueled. It’s really important to develop this multifunctional composite to help unmanned aerospace vehicles operate 24/7.”


One layer is a mechanoluminescent copper-doped zinc-sulfide, which flashes visible light when under strain. The light flashes are a damage detection method, which will allow engineers to remotely monitor the structural health of unmanned vehicles. The second layer is a photovoltaic layer that converts the light flashes into electricity.


“This composite will be used at critical loading areas, like the wings and wherever engineers expect to see the largest strain and stress,” Ryu said. “There are quite a few applications and this composite works with no degradation.”


The material and geometric design of the multilayered thin films will be optimized through in-depth studies for enhancing sensing capability, energy conversion efficiency, and micro-/nano-mechanical performance.


This year – year one – will be devoted to designing the composite. The second year will see the team fabricating a wing and testing. Students will travel to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California to simulate real situations in air and in space to evaluate the material’s performance. Along with collaborators at NASA, the team will use the Flight Loads Lab to test the Aerostructure Test Wing for vibrational loading and for energy harvesting capabilities.


The third and final year will see more validation testing at White Sands Missile Range, including ballistic testing to evaluate how the material will withstand impacts with space junk and other natural objects.


EPSCoR stands for the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The program was first launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support research in regions of the country that are less populated – and receive less federal funding for leading-edge research. NSF’s successes with the EPSCoR program prompted other federal agencies to adopt the same approach.


“NSF said, ‘We want to do something that spreads the wealth to less populated states’,” Romero said. “So they set aside funds in their funding stream for underrepresented states. It was very successful at NSF, so others have followed, such as NASA.”


Not only does EPSCoR support deserving research projects, the program also builds lasting ties between federal agencies and universities that previously had little or no relations with the project supporters.


“It’s not just funding. These grants promote interaction with collaborators at the agencies,” Romero said. “These are large programs to build capacity within the university. These grants to new faculty get students involved as well. The idea is that we build a legacy after the grant is over as a result of building these relationships.”