NSF funds effort to develop novel theory for finding materials with optimal fracture properties

12/8/2021 9:16:14 AM

X. Shelly Zhang and Oscar Lopez-Pamies
X. Shelly Zhang and Oscar Lopez-Pamies

A new project funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award seeks to create a novel computational framework for automatically generating optimal microstructures for materials with improved fracture behaviors. Assistant Professor X. Shelly Zhang is the Principal Investigator (PI) on the project and Professor Oscar Lopez-Pamies is co-PI.

Fracture toughness is vital in many engineering disciplines because it determines the resilience or robustness of a structure or device. For this project, the researchers will utilize Zhang’s topology optimization methodology and Lopez-Pamies’ new fracture theory to formulate a computational framework that will serve as a basis for discovery of novel geometries and mechanisms toward enhanced toughness.

“Our research group creates computational tools to automatically generate the optimal geometry for various purposes, such as higher stiffness or better fracture property – and Professor Lopez-Pamies developed a new fracture formulation, which describes how things break,” Zhang said. “Synergistically integrating my optimization method with Professor Lopez-Pamies’ formulation, we can come up with an optimization theory that can predict and discover new geometries that maximize fracture property.”

Such a theory would provide significant value to fields like civil engineering, where being able to engineer materials with increased fracture toughness would result in buildings, bridges and other structures with longer lifespans. This theory would also have applications in other disciplines including mechanical engineering, materials science and bioengineering. For example, soft materials used for medical implants could be engineered with optimized microstructures to prevent future mechanical failure, Zhang said.

Before these types of materials can be created, however, the theoretical foundation needs to be properly worked out, which is where this project comes in. NSF EAGER grants are used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches.

“The nature of this grant is early concept,” Zhang said. “In this case, we are trying to pave the road – to build the foundation that’s required to formulate a general framework. Right now we are developing a first-step theory to accomplish that.”

Zhang joined the CEE faculty in 2018. She is also an alumna of CEE at Illinois, having earned her bachelor’s (2012) and master’s (2014) degrees in the department. Her research interests are in the general areas of topology optimization, data-driven models, stochastic programming, additive manufacturing, multi-scale materials and structures, 3D/4D printing and uncertainty quantification. Lopez-Pamies has been on the CEE faculty since 2011, where his research interests include mechanics and physics of soft solids, geometric and material instabilities, microstructures, homogenization and numerical methods for solving partial differential equations.