College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences; Research

Developing smart materials with supercomputers


Ulf Schiller of Clemson University is bringing a physicist’s perspective to materials science as part of a new project that employs sophisticated supercomputing techniques to better understand complex fluids, a step toward creating new smart materials.

Schiller, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, said that his new research will focus on various combinations of liquid mixtures that can form emulsions similar to oil and water. He and his team will look at what happens when particles are added to control the emulsion structure and change the properties of the liquids.

Ulf Schiller
Ulf Schiller

 “We want to fundamentally understand what’s going on when complex emulsions form, try to discover new effects and see how they could be used to create new fluid materials or improve the properties of existing materials,” Schiller said.

The research could lead to programmable smart materials that may be of use in a host of fields, including energy storage, drug delivery and water treatment, and has applications in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries.

Schiller’s work is funded by a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. The awards are celebrated in higher education because they are widely viewed as a predictor of future success.

Kyle Brinkman, chair of Clemson’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said Schiller’s award is well deserved.

“A CAREER award is one of the nation’s highest honors for junior faculty members,” Brinkman said. “Dr. Schiller’s award is a reflection of his hard work and the unique perspective he brings to materials science.”

Schiller trained as a physicist before transitioning into materials science in 2016 when he joined Clemson. He received master’s degrees in computer science and physics from the University of Bielefeld in Germany and a Ph.D. from Johannes Gutenberg University and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, also in Germany.

In their research, Schiller and his team will simulate what happens to droplets stabilized by magnetic particles, including how they respond to magnetic fields. Of particular interest to the team are magnetic emulsions and bijels, a relatively novel gel-like structure that can be used to fabricate membranes and porous materials. 

Schiller and his team are doing all of their CAREER-award research on computers, including Clemson’s Palmetto Cluster supercomputer.

Computers allow researchers to conduct experiments faster and cheaper than in a lab, while controlling the experiment’s parameters, such as temperature fluctuations and particle concentration, Schiller said. Researchers can also play with parameters and try simulations that would be more difficult and time-consuming to do in a lab, he said.

“The goal is to design new materials on computers and then bring the materials to our colleagues to try to create them in the lab,” Schiller said.

Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research at Clemson, said Schiller’s award helps push Clemson further down the path to becoming a preeminent research university.

“This year Clemson has six new CAREER awards, one award through the Army Research Office’s Young Investigator Program and one DARPA Young Faculty Award,” he said. “These awards go to faculty members early in their careers, which bodes well for the future. Collectively, the awards underscore that the administrative support we provide, including Clemson CAREER Academy, is having a positive impact.”

Schiller’s award provides funding for one undergraduate student, one graduate student and one post-doctoral researcher to assist in the research.

Also as part of the award, Schiller is launching new educational initiatives that will allow him to teach computational skills that are becoming increasingly important, especially for engineers.  He is also creating the Virtual Materials Experience, which will allow users to explore materials in virtual reality.

“I thought why not take some results we get from our simulations and visualize them in virtual reality?” he said. “You can start moving around through a material that would be a very small sample in the lab. We’re talking about micron- and nanoscale. If you can visualize it in virtual reality to look at it from different angles and and virtually move through it, you get a much better feeling of what a material looks like from the inside.”

Daniel Noneaker, associate dean for research in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Schiller’s CAREER award underscores his excellence as a scholar and educator.

“This award is a testament to the quality of Dr. Schiller’s research and teaching,” Noneaker said. “I congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.” 

Schiller said he wanted to thank everyone who helped him get the award, including his research group and students.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “Any grant is based on the interactions we have everyday. When the students don’t understand something and they ask me to clarify, that helps me to think in new ways as well.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said CAREER awards are tremendous accomplishments for junior faculty members. 

“These awards help elevate the college’s national reputation for excellence in research and teaching,” he said. “I offer Dr. Schiller my wholehearted congratulations and look forward to watching his career grow.”

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