Engineering professors receive Air Force grant to develop new energy materials

Seong Kim, left, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering, and Zoubeida Ounaies, Dorothy Quiggle Career Development Professor of Mechanical Engineering, have been awarded a $695,000 grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to develop a new class of low-density energy materials.
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The grant will support the investigation of nanocellulose, a crystalline solid substance obtained from plant matter, and its ability to produce electric energy when subjected to mechanical stress.

The goal of the study is to gain physical insights that will enable researchers to develop a new class of energy materials with the capacity to enhance energy sensing, actuation and storage across a number of applications that include personal health monitoring devices, critical infrastructure observation, and mobile power supply, among others.

Cellulose is a naturally abundant crystalline nanomaterial produced and deposited in the cell walls of plants. It can be isolated from wood and other vegetation in the form of nanocrystals and, due to its huge dipole movements, is expected to produce an electric charge in response to applied mechanical stress — a term referred to as piezoelectricity.

“The hypothesis that cellulose is piezoelectric was first recognized in the 1950s but has not yet been measured properly or fully understood,” said Kim. “This is because most natural and artificially produced composite materials are arranged in anti-parallel or random orientations.”

Kim and Ounaies plan to develop efficient ways to attain parallel alignment of cellulose nanocrystals and investigate their intrinsic structure-property relationship.

Research findings could have significant impact on the defense, health care and energy industries.

The AFOSR grant supports a three-year research term, which was launched in December 2015. All interdisciplinary research is being conducted at Penn State’s University Park campus.