Material Advances: UH Researchers Work to Make Our Lives More Efficient

Nationally Recognized Advanced Materials Research Puts UH in the Spotlight

By Laura Tolley

“You know that we are living in a material world.” – Madonna, 1985

Paul ChuThe quintessential Material Girl’s song may seem a little superficial for many of us, but it turns out we do live in a world of materials — though not just the diamonds and minks Madonna referenced. From the vehicles we drive to the computers we use to the electrical transmission lines that power our homes, materials are used to build the mundane and the extraordinary pieces of our existence.

“Materials are part of our everyday, fundamental lives,” said Allan Jacobson, a UH chemistry professor and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston (TCSUH).

Researchers constantly are trying to improve existing materials or create new ones that can make our lives better and more efficient. The far-reaching field of advanced materials science is one of major significance at the University of Houston, where researchers are involved in a variety of projects ranging from fundamental science to revolutionary applications.

There is ongoing research in a number of areas of advanced materials, including applied electromagnetics, superconducting materials and devices, semiconductors, advanced oxide films, nano-materials, ceramics, composites and subsurface sensing. UH is home to the Center for Advanced Materials, but faculty members from the engineering, technology and science colleges also are hard at work on their own ideas.

“UH is well known in the world of advanced materials research,” said Alex Ignatiev, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of Physics, Chemistry, and Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Materials.

One of UH’s most noted researchers in the field is C.W. Paul Chu, the T.L.L. Temple Chair of Science and professor of physics, who brought worldwide recognition to Houston in 1987 with the discovery of a material that acts as a high-temperature superconductor, allowing electricity to pass through it without losing energy. Chu’s discovery launched a new era in the field of superconductivity.

“Paul Chu’s discovery involving superconductivity was a major step in UH’s work on advanced materials,” Jacobson said. “It brought significant recognition and visibility to the university. The exposure helped attract faculty and resulted in more money from the state to build the materials program. We’re still the 600-pound gorilla in the room when it comes to superconductivity.”

Chu continues his work at TCSUH, searching for new and better materials. Another standout in the superconductivity arena is Venkat Selvamanickam (M.S. ’88, Ph.D. ’92), Selva to his colleagues, who is director of the Applied Research Hub and the M.D. Anderson Distinguished Professor in Mechanical Engineering. Selvamanickam has developed a superconducting wire that can be used to carry electricity more efficiently than existing wires.

“Almost anything in the power grid, cables, transformers, motors, generators, can be more efficient if you use high temperature superconducting wires,” said Selvamanickam, who also is applying his research to solar cells.

Another key area for advanced materials research is UH’s work in offshore wind technology. That effort received a boost earlier this year when the Department of Energy granted UH a $2.3 million grant to establish the National Wind Energy Center, which will be the site for development and testing of composite materials and components for large offshore wind turbines. The new testing facility will help propel the region to the forefront of U.S. offshore wind development.

Allan JacobsonUH’s accomplished track record in advanced materials research continues to attract students and faculty members, such as Francisco Robles-Hernandez, an assistant professor in the College of Technology. Robles-Hernandez is working on a number of advanced materials research projects, including the development of materials that can significantly extend the life of railroad wheels and tracks.

“All of my work is in material sciences,” noted Robles-Hernandez, a Mexico City native. “I came here two years ago because of the university’s work in advanced materials.”

Some research projects could result in real-world applications sooner than others. But in labs across campus, researchers are sorting out big dreams that could result in dramatic changes.

T. Randall Lee, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair of Chemistry, and his colleagues are working on research projects in a number of areas, including the development of nano-structures. Jacobson says that research could lead to the development of a nano-structure that could be injected into human tissue and then radiated, killing only the cancerous tissue, along with other medical applications.

At the Center for Advanced Materials, Ignatiev has his eye on the moon. One of his ideas centers on developing a technology to mine lunar silicon and make solar cells out of the material right on the moon. It’s nicknamed the “lunar Zamboni,” because it would resemble the famed ice-resurfacer, rolling across the moon’s surface and paving it with solar cells. An area the size of a football field could power one lunar plant. Larger swaths of land could produce enough power to beam back to Earth, with few, if any, environmental consequences.

“Now, THAT’S a real advanced application for advanced materials,” Ignatiev said.