Title: Studies of Structural Nanocomposites Using Transmission Electron Microscopy

Award ID: 0401724 (03/01/2004 to 08/31/2006)

Project Summary

During the last decade, nanocomposites have emerged as new hybrid materials consisting of polymers and nanometer-sized inorganic particles. These nanocomposites have exhibited significant improvement in chemical, thermal, and mechanical properties with a very low loading of the inorganic particle while maintaining polymeric clarity and cost and allowing conventional polymer processing. Researchers at the Center for Advanced Materials at Tuskegee University (T-CAM) have successfully utilized this concept by infusing nanoclays, nanotubes, and nanoparticles with various polymers and extended it to manufacture structural composites. The enhancement in strength and stiffness of these nanocomposites is quite phenomenal, in some cases as high as 50%, over the neat polymeric composites. Although the resulting composites showed remarkable improvement in properties, the underlying science has not been fully understood since the composites were mostly evaluated at larger scale rather than at nano or molecular level where the strengthening phenomena were actually taking place. In view of this, we propose to investigate several aspects of the fundamental science of particle-polymer interaction and failure of structural nanocomposites under the RISE program using a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM). The faculty members associated with T-CAM have been successful in obtaining CREST, PFI, and IGERT grants from NSF. Through these grants, adequate amount of support for faculty as well as fellowships and assistantships for students involved in materials research are now available. The thrust of this proposal is therefore, directed primarily towards acquiring a TEM to enhance the quality of ongoing research. In the proposed research activities, we plan to probe the degree of dispersion, size, shape, and alignment of particles, and interfaces between the particle and the polymer in the resulting nanocomposites. We have selected two thrust areas for research. These are: (i) Cure and relaxation  behavior of polymer nanocomposites and (ii) structural nanocomposites. A diverse team of researchers from Tuskegee University has been assembled for the two thrust areas. We are also embarking on establishing a long-term relationship with Cornell University’s Center for Materials Research and it has agreed to assist us with the initial training related to TEM operation and data interpretation. T-CAM has been involved extensively in science and engineering education from its very beginning. The Center also houses Tuskegee University’s first Ph.D. program in Materials Science and Engineering, which graduated its first batch of 4 students in May 2003. We also propose to involve undergraduate and graduate students in material research using the TEM.

The intellectual merit of this proposal lies in the fundamental studies of nanocomposites at the molecular level in determining the bonding effect between the particle and the polymer and investigation of the structure-property relationship at the nanometer level using a TEM. Successful completion of these investigations will lead to the development of a new generation of structural nanocomposites based on a firm scientific foundation.

The broader impacts of this project include the fact that a large number of African American graduates, many at the Ph.D. level, will be produced in an emerging area of materials science and engineering with skills in using TEM. Such graduates should become role models for many young minority students in years to come. Moreover, these graduates will help bring much-needed diversity to the nation’s advanced technological workforce. It is also anticipated that the fundamental studies delineated in this proposal will eventually result in new design and manufacturing methodologies that may well lead to patentable processes for large-scale production of nanophased structural composites.

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