Mechanical engineering professor receives grant to explore soft smart materials

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Zoubeida Ounaies, professor and associate head for administration in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct fundamental research into a new class of soft responsive materials, in collaboration with the University of Illinois. 

Alongside Oscar Lopez-Pamies, associate professor, and Ioannis Chasiotis, professor, both at the University of Illinois, and Amira Meddeb, associate research professor at Penn State, Ounaies will examine soft elastic materials such as elastomers – highly elastic materials that can stretch significantly under load – combined with other solid and fluid inclusions for sensors and actuator applications. 

“Because elastomers are light weight and flexible, they are applicable to a variety of technologies from soft robotics, to reconfigurable displays and stretchable electronics,” Ounaies said. “But when you start adding solid inclusions [to make composites], some of these advantages can be negated due to the contrasting properties between the hard inclusions and the soft elastomers. However, in some cases, researchers have found that these filled elastomers can exhibit extreme electro- and magneto-mechanical properties.” 

With the NSF grant, Ounaies and her colleagues will explore elastomer composites filled with fluid inclusions, with a specific focus on the elastomer-inclusion interaction. 

“The interaction area or interphase is distinct from both the bulk elastomer and the fluid inclusions; it’s not quite one or the other,” Ounaies said. “We’ve shown it has some interesting electrical and mechanical responses for example, where these responses are not easily predicted using existing theory.” 

With the possibility to couple electromagnetic fields to its elastic behavior, this elastomer composite could be applied to fields like soft robotics, where there is a strong need for systems that can operate without the added weight of electromagnetic motors. 

“A successful combination of these materials could be useful in getting a robot arm to move naturally,” she said. “In my lab, we don’t directly work in robotics, but we are developing smart materials that could enable advanced soft robotics.” 

Ounaies, who will receive $600,000 of the grant, will use her expertise in composite processing and smart materials to further the project. The grant was awarded through the NSF program Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future, which is a part of the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI). The multidisciplinary collaboration is funded for the next four years.

“Our team combines mathematics, computations, materials science and experimental mechanics,” Ounaies said. “This project is a nice meshing of all of our expertise.” 

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