Designing light-weight materials for aerospace applications

Editor’s note: Research, community service, internships and study abroad typically make summers memorable for many University of Delaware students. While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has sidetracked some of these activities, UD students are continuing with hundreds of remarkable projects remotely. Check out our series of profiles and stories, which also are being highlighted on the Summer Spotlight website.

Kyle Morris is a rising junior from Mount Laurel, New Jersey. He is studying mechanical engineering and expects to graduate from the University of Delaware in May 2022.

Q: What are you studying and with whom? 

Morris: Silicon carbide is a naturally occurring material, although it is extremely rare to find. It is sought after in multiple industrial applications for its heat-resistant properties, as well as for its high strength and toughness. I am working with Zubaer Hossain, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, to study how defects in the atom-scale structure of silicon carbide — even just one missing atom — affect the material.

My research specifically looks at how two defects interact with each other and how these interactions change the overall strength and toughness of the material. I can observe this behavior by first coding a file to show the atom-scale structure of silicon carbide, including the two defects, using a software program called Ovito. Then, by submitting the Ovito files to a remote high-performance computer server, I can run simulations to get a visual representation of how the defects will influence each other.

Q: What inspired this project?

Morris: One time at the end of a class, Dr. Hossain introduced everyone to the summer scholars program, and I scheduled a meeting with him to discuss if there was an opportunity for me to do some research. We discussed my interests within my major and what I would be interested in working on after completing college. I talked about my interest in aerospace technologies and the relevance of material research to the development of spacecrafts and other space-related technology. Dr. Hossain suggested that we could investigate further into the material properties of silicon carbide, which has proven to be an extremely diverse and useful material in terms of its applications to a variety of fields.

Q: What is it about this topic that interests you?

Morris: Specifically, this topic is interesting to me because it is a genuinely important investigation into the possible applications and generalized behavior of an emerging, technologically significant material. From reading up on the previous applications of silicon carbide, either in independent research studies or from the actual uses of the material on things such as commercial and military aircrafts and spacecrafts, I have developed a keen interest in the future applications of this material. The material’s temperature-resistance and high strength allow for aircrafts to reduce their weight, while improving structural integrity, therefore reducing the cost of fuel. This material is also used for many other things such as car breaks, car clutches, bulletproof vests and more, including many heat-related applications.

Q: How has COVID-19 shaped your plans for this project? Is flexibility something that comes easily for you?

Morris: Since most of my research is computational, the majority of the plan remained intact, however COVID-19 definitely changed the way that my project was approached. This change was something that I was prepared for since I had already made the adjustment to online classes during the 2020 spring semester. One thing that COVID-19 had the most impact on is the communication aspect of my research. Of course, it would be easier to communicate through in-person contact, but the pandemic requires that we use technology to communicate, which can sometimes be unreliable or harder to communicate with. Despite this, I think the adjustment was rather easy because I consider myself to be a rather adaptable and flexible person.

Q: What are the possible real-world applications for your study?

Morris: Real-world applications for my study extend to a multitude of material applications. With the research I am conducting, I will be able to answer some important questions about silicon carbide that will allow for more reliable understanding and use of the material. Creating models for how two defects in the material affect and interact with each other could lead to further research on the endurance of the material.

Engineering major Kyle Morris is investigating how imperfections affect a material’s strength. This brief video clip demonstrates how atomic-scale defects — even just one or two missing atoms — can affect materials, such as silicon carbide, a naturally occurring material that is sought after in industrial and aerospace applications.

Engineering major Kyle Morris is investigating how imperfections affect a material’s strength. This brief video clip demonstrates how atomic-scale defects — even just one or two missing atoms — can affect materials, such as silicon carbide, a naturally occurring material that is sought after in industrial and aerospace applications.

Q: How would you explain your work to a fifth grader or someone’s grandparent? (Feel free to use an analogy if that helps)

Morris: Imagine a flat piece of paper made of many small spheres that are connected together with little strings. Then imagine punching two holes in the paper to represent the removal of two of these spheres—one at the center and one at a certain distance and angle away. If you start pulling the paper from the top and bottom, eventually it will rip. You can observe how and where the paper tears, and how the two missing spheres interact when the tearing begins. This is the same process I am observing for silicon carbide to understand how defects interact within the material.

Q: What advice would you give younger kids (middle school or high school) with similar interests?

Morris: I would say to explore your interests and read as much as your curiosity in a subject will allow. If you follow what inspires you, it can lead you to exactly where you want to be on your academic path, and it will open up opportunities for you to do what captivates you.

Q: Have the changes required by the pandemic changed your perspective on anything? Would you share an example or two?

Morris: The pandemic has allowed me to realize how important it is to connect with people in person. This is not only because communication of ideas is much easier in person, but also because of the benefit of social connections to mental health. It is very motivating to communicate directly with people, and unfortunately, that kind of motivation is less possible during the pandemic, so I had to adjust myself and ensure that I had a routine to get work done.

My second realization came from when I established my routine. Typically, we are given a routine to follow that is structured and enforced because you could miss something if you do not attend class or work. Working from home, I am responsible for developing my own schedule. Creating a schedule for myself to follow was, at first, an exercise in will power because it was difficult to get up and motivate myself to work. However, once I continued following my schedule it became easier to work when I needed to. This has given me an appreciation for the structure of usual school and work during non-pandemic conditions. At the same time, it has also taught me the importance of having a routine.

| Photos and .gif provided by Kyle Morris | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase