How 2 applied research centers help researchers, companies make better products

When solving a product-related question or problem, it’s sometimes best to find the necessary information within the product’s structure. That’s the focus of two research centers within the Applied Research and Technology program at Western Kentucky University — the Advanced Materials Institute (AMI) and the Thermal Analysis Laboratory (TA Lab). Both research centers are located in WKU’s research park, the Center for Research and Development (CRD).

Like other research centers at the university, the Advanced Materials Institute and the Thermal Analysis Laboratory serve dual audiences: faculty and students who are in the midst of on-campus research projects, and companies who work with AMI or the TA Lab to explore, test and refine their products. Yet the balance between those two areas of focus — as well as the work itself — differs between the two departments.

Student worker at Thermal Analysis Lab

Chemistry graduate student Madawa Abeywickrama performs a thermal analysis experiment in WKU’s Thermal Analysis Lab.

Thermal Analysis Laboratory — the search for information heats up

Since its founding in the 1980s, the Thermal Analysis Laboratory has grown to house approximately 35 instruments “that are all around the theme of performing thermal analysis,” said Edwin Stevens, Ph.D., who serves as director of both the Thermal Analysis Laboratory and the Advanced Materials Institute. That range of instruments has made the TA Lab among the best-equipped academic laboratories of this type in the U.S., Stevens added.

A sampling of the instrumentation and capabilities at the TA Lab includes a Pressurized Differential Scanning Calorimeter, which provides heat flow measurements on pressure-sensitive materials under controlled pressure and gas composition conditions; Dynamic Mechanical Analysis, which measures the mechanical properties of materials as a function of temperature, time and frequency of an applied stress; and X-Ray Powder Diffraction, a powerful, nondestructive way to identify crystalline phases in powdered solid samples.

The TA Lab, day-to-day operations of which are overseen by Hou-yin Zhao, Ph.D., is an ideal resource for WKU faculty and students doing research, but the majority of the lab’s focus is on supporting companies that range from regional to global businesses. Stevens said typical company-facing research engagements involve the analysis of a particular sample, whether from a product that’s in development or one that’s already out in the market.

“The sample is heated, then the instruments measure the change in weight as its heated,” Stevens said. “Sometimes when you heat something up, it gives off gases. We also measure the heat flow in and out, so if it melts, there’s a change in the flow. If it’s giving off gases or decomposing, we can also take the gas, analyze it and find out what the products are.”

Often, the focus of the TA Lab’s analysis is identifying the source of a problem — if a product breaks unexpectedly, for example, or doesn’t otherwise perform as expected.

“Sometimes we get pieces of tires or rubber belts, or components used in electrical devices — we do work for companies that make wires and circuit boards,” Stevens said. “When something fails, we can figure out what’s happening. We run the analysis, give the company the data, then they can look at it to help solve their problems.”

The TA Lab can also assist companies with a number of other capabilities, including contaminant identification, end-use performance prediction, competitive product evaluation, vendor certification and finished product performance. Some companies opt to use TA Lab analysis as a form of quality control.

“We occasionally get quality control jobs where a company may have some in-house way of doing testing, but they want an independent laboratory to verify that what they’re doing in-house is the same as what someone else would get,” Stevens said.

Yaowen Cui is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Louisiana State University and worked in the TA Lab as a WKU graduate student. Cui said the range of equipment at the lab was a significant help.

“The TA Lab has the most professional and newest style of thermal analysis instruments, as well as other material characteristic techniques, and I got a lot of benefit from that,” Cui said. “Also, the professors and coworkers there are always ready to help. They made the research very efficient.”

Student worker at Advanced Materials Institute

Student worker Leah Jackson performs materials analysis in the Advanced Materials Institute at Western Kentucky University.

Advanced Materials Institute — the answer’s in the details

The Advanced Materials Institute shares some of the instrumentation and capabilities of the TA Lab, but Stevens said the primary difference between the two facilities is that AMI has more instruments “focused on materials’ characterization,” which has broader applications than the TA Lab analysis.

Because AMI is funded, in part, by the University (whereas the TA Lab is solely self-supporting), it has more of an emphasis on on-campus research. Take, for example, one of Stevens’ research projects, which not only illustrates some of the laboratory’s capabilities, but also opportunities for student involvement.

“I’m working with two Gatton Academy [of Mathematics and Science] students who use AMI’s single crystal X-ray instrumentation and look at the electronic structure of drug molecules,” he said. “With that sub-atomic resolution, we’re trying to locate where the electrons are in the molecule. From that, we’ll potentially be able to design drugs that are more effective or have fewer side effects.”

Additional research projects are ongoing at the AMI, overseen by Pauline Norris. The projects all fall under the umbrella of materials science — an area of study that involves establishing the relationship of a material’s microstructure to its macromolecular physical and chemical properties. “By understanding and then changing the microstructure, materials scientists tailor the properties to create custom, or even brand-new, materials with specific properties for specific uses,” according to the American Chemical Society.

Another example? Rui Zhang, Ph.D., a chemistry professor, is “developing sustainable, green and selective oxidation catalysis via highly reactive metal-oxo species. The specific objective is to develop a photo-catalytic procedure for organic oxidations using only atmospheric oxygen and visible light (sunlight). The use of molecular oxygen and solar light in oxidative catalysis is particularly relevant to realizing innovative and economically advantageous processes for conversion of hydrocarbons into oxygenates and, at the same time, move toward a ‘sustainable chemistry’ that has minimal environmental impact.’”

Although AMI has a slightly higher emphasis on academic research than the TA Lab, AMI also helps companies solve problems with research-driven analysis. A chemical company uses AMI for both raw material and finished product investigations, as well as new development research and confirmation of product characteristics.

In addition to learning more about a product (or its flaws) by delving more deeply into its microstructure, AMI-produced analysis can also help companies improve processes related to products. An automotive supplier recently encountered prohibitive costs of existing disposal procedures for non-hazardous waste. The company worked with AMI to analyze its steel grinding waste, then used that information to identify more cost-effective landfill and recycling options.

The emphasis on corporately funded projects and on-campus research may slightly differ between AMI and the TA Lab, but they both offer opportunities for students to get hands-on experience. Student roles at the TA Lab fluctuate depending on the current project pipeline, while Stevens said there’s typically at least one student working in the AMI throughout the year. Not only do these students receive an opportunity to participate in the data collection and analysis; they also learn operational skills that will give them an edge in the job market.

“These students receive real-world experience in how to run these instruments, so when they go out and look for a job, they already have that experience,” Stevens said. “It makes the students more competitive in the job market, plus they get paid while they work here!”