College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Some of Clemson University’s coolest tech is used by materials scientists and engineers


Students are generally familiar with most majors even before they take the first class, but materials science and engineering leaves some wondering what exactly it entails.

It’s relatively simple.

Materials scientists and engineers are the unsung heroes who design, develop and produce engineered materials that touch virtually every aspect of the modern world.

This is a rendering of the Advanced Materials Innovation Complex, a planned 143,000-square-foot building that will be Clemson University’s most technologically advanced facility once complete.

To paraphrase a TV commercial from the 1990s, materials scientists and engineers don’t make the products you buy, but they make the products you buy better. Their innovations range from optical fiber for lasers to plastics and composites that heal their own scratches.

It is a great discipline for students interested in research because materials scientists and engineers use some of the most interesting facilities and technology on campus.

Today we are swinging open the laboratory doors to give you five examples to help round out your understanding of the major and show some of its opportunities:

Advanced Materials Innovation Complex: Clemson University will soon break ground on a world-class research-and-education facility that will serve as home base for faculty members in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the labs they use.

The 143,000-square-foot building will be the University’s most technologically advanced facility. It will include cutting-edge research and teaching laboratories, synergistic classrooms and collaborative spaces for exploration and conversation outside the lab and classroom.

All students in the complex will conduct research, helping prepare them to be future leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs in advanced materials, a discipline expected to be transformative in advanced manufacturing, energy and health innovation.

The Advanced Materials Innovation Complex is on track to open in 2025, which means students who enroll now will likely be among the first to use it.

Kyle Brinkman, left, and his former Ph.D. student, Mingyang Zhao, work with the calorimeter in this 2016 photo.

Not a water heater: It may look like an oversized water heater, but what happens inside the high-temperature melt solution calorimeter is helping South Carolina play a leading role in research that ensures nuclear waste is stored safely for generations to come.

The custom-made instrument measures heat flow in various materials and is so sensitive that it can detect someone’s breath, even when it’s coming from just outside the room. Ceilings in a lab had to be raised and a platform was built to accommodate the calorimeter.

Several researchers are using the calorimeter to answer some of the nation’s most perplexing questions about managing nuclear waste as well as to design new materials for energy conversion and storage, including batteries, fuel cells and thermoelectrics.

The data generated by the calorimeter are helping the nation advance clean energy, a critical issue in South Carolina, where four nuclear power plants supplied more than half of the state’s electricity last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Kyle Brinkman, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was key in bringing the calorimeter to Clemson.

Creating self-healing materials: Marek Urban and his team use a technology he played a leading role in developing: high-fidelity surface chemical imaging. The technique allows the team to measure molecular processes responsible for the dynamics of macromolecules.

Marek Urban, right, and Ph.D. student Samruddhi Gaikwad work with a device they use to make hoses.

One of its uses is in the creation of materials that can heal themselves like skin. Urban, the J.E. Sirrine Foundation Endowed Chair in Advanced Polymer Fiber-Based Materials, is a pioneer and leader in the field.

Urban has been developing self-healing materials for more than a decade and has considered applications ranging from paint that repairs its own scratches to military vehicles that patch its own bullet holes to self-repairable pet toys.

In a more recent project, Urban and his team have developed a self-repairing hose to dispense hydrogen as part of the nation’s effort to diversify its fuel supply.

Advances in recycling plastic: Igor Luzinov, the Kentwool Distinguished Professor, uses a ball mill in research that could lead to a new way of recycling polystyrene, a widely used plastic that shows up in products ranging from disposable food containers to foam packaging materials.

To recycle polystyrene, the molecular bonds that hold it together have to be broken. One way is to heat the polystyrene to more than 300 degrees Celsius, but that is energy intensive and prohibitively expensive to do on a large scale.

The research team, which included several researchers from Ames Laboratory, instead put commercial polystyrene inside a ball mill. When the device is turned on, it shakes, and small metal balls inside smash against the polystyrene pieces, facilitating chemical transformations.

The team found that ball-milling broke the molecular chains– called polymers– into chains that were 10-20 times shorter. Shortening the chains means the polystyrene would be less viscous when melted and therefore easier to recycle.

Igor Luzinov, second from right, works with students in his lab at Clemson University. He is the first Kentwool Distinguished Professorship in Natural Fibers.
Igor Luzinov, second from right, works with students in his lab at Clemson University.

Most surprisingly, though, the team found ball-milling also produced single molecules called monomers.

The ability to break down polystyrene into monomers could prove to be key in separating polystyrene from impurities, such as the various additives commonly included when it is manufactured. That would mean the recycled polystyrene could be used for a wide variety of applications, including food and medical uses.

Combining 3D-printing and lasers: One device at Clemson combines 3D printing and lasers in a technique known as laser-selective integrated additive/subtractive manufacturing, or (L-IASM). 

In one project, researchers are using the technique to advance technology for hydrogen-powered turbines, a potential clean-energy source of the future.

An advantage that hydrogen-fueled turbines would have over other clean-energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, is that hydrogen can be burned at will to generate power without having to worry about changes in the weather.

One of the major challenges in adopting hydrogen-powered turbines is protecting turbine blades against heat and high-velocity steam.  A possible solution under study at Clemson would be to cover turbine blades with a special slurry and use a laser to sinter it one point at a time, creating a protective coating. Clemson researchers are using L-IASM to create samples of various materials that could be analyzed for their suitability as a covering.

In another project that is a collaboration with the Army Research Laboratory, Clemson researchers are using the 3D-printing facility to explore the creation of new ceramic composites that would be able to stop extremely high-velocity projectiles or lead flying objects at hypersonic speed. 

Members of Intelligent Systems for Extreme Environments discuss their work while gathered around a 3D printer that is enabling new research. They are (from left) Jane Zhao, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Jianhua “Joshua” Tong, an associate professor of materials science and engineering; Fei Peng, associate professor of materials science and engineering; and Hai Xiao, the Samuel Lewis Bell Distinguished Professor in Electrical Computer Engineering.
(From left): Jane Zhao, Jianhua “Joshua” Tong, Fei Peng and Hai Xiao discuss their work while gathered around a 3D printer that is enabling new research.

In still another project, researchers are using the laser to fabricate stacks of fuel cells, electrolyzers and batteries. Using laser-based 3D printing, researchers can precisely control the processing temperature at the micrometer scale. This unique capability allows researchers to build stacks of energy devices continuously, resulting in compact devices with high energy densities.

A multidisciplinary team is responsible for developing L-IASM, including: Fei Peng, associate professor of materials science and engineering; Jianhua “Joshua” Tong, associate professor of materials science and engineering; Hai Xiao, chair of the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Jane Zhao, Stanzione Associate Professor of mechanical engineering; Brinkman; Rajendra Bordia, the George J. Bishop, III Endowed Chair of materials science and engineering; and Shunyu Liu, assistant professor of automotive engineering.

Powerful lasers: Clemson, faculty and students create a wide variety of high-powered, experimental lasers. Some are designed to make precision cuts or drill the tiniest of holes, while others counterintuitively make things colder.

Optical fiber is a key part of many laser systems, and Clemson has some of the most unique facilities in the world for creating industry-grade optical fiber at its facility in Anderson, South Carolina. They include a modified chemical vapor deposition lathe and a two-story draw tower.

Clemson also has some of the world’s top faculty in the field, including John Ballato, who holds the J.E. Sirrine Endowed Chair of Optical Fiber in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Clemson, with joint appointments in electrical engineering and in physics.

A closer look with microscopes: Materials scientists and engineers at Clemson use some of the world’s most unique and powerful microscopes. One of them is called a confocal Raman microscope.

Luiz Jacobsohn works in his lab.

The microscope allows researchers to examine ceramic materials with the technique of Raman spectroscopy. That alone is not so rare, but it’s less common to use the technique with a combination of high temperatures and controlled atmosphere. This microscope has that capability, heating materials as high as 1,500 degrees Celsius.

Faculty members and their students use the microscope in a variety of nuclear-energy projects, especially those focused on nuclear fuel cladding, nuclear waste immobilization and radiation damage. They are, for example, evaluating new types of molten salt mixtures used in molten salt nuclear reactors.

Luiz Jacobsohn, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, was instrumental in securing the funding that brought the microscope to Clemson.

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