sealPurdue News

April 29, 2002

Young Purdue faculty members win prestigious NSF awards

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Seven Purdue University engineers and scientists have won the National Science Foundation's most prestigious honor for outstanding young researchers.

The Faculty Early Career Development awards for 2001 range from $300,000 to $500,000 in research funding over four or five years.

Purdue's recipients this year are Walid Aref, David Corti, Hugh Hillhouse, Arvind Raman, Brooke Shipley, Rodney Trice and Jason Weiss.

Here are details about the Purdue awardees and their research:

Database Expansion:

Aref, an associate professor of computer sciences, concentrates his research in database technologies for emerging applications.

"Traditionally, database systems have been used successfully for storing textual data," he said. "The goal of my research is to advance database technologies to efficiently operate on non-traditional types of data: for example, video, gene data and geographical maps."

Aref achieves this by extending database technologies at various layers of a system. His work is currently aimed at developing new techniques for fast retrieval, query processing and disk scheduling that will be suitable for these non-traditional data types and can be scaled as the operational requirements, dimensionality and size of the data increase.

Self-Assembling Crystals:

Corti, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, will use the NSF grant to harness complex theoretical and computational models that simulate how tiny particles in solutions arrange themselves onto surfaces, forming specific microstructures that offer promise in the fabrication of electronic devices. The models enable researchers to study the molecular forces that influence how the particles interact with each other and various surfaces and eventually come together to form specific shapes or structures.

By better understanding the forces that act on particles to form these structures, it may be possible to cause the particles to self assemble, or form themselves once the process begins, similar to the way in which organic structures grow in living things. If perfected, self assembly of electronic devices would be far less expensive than conventional manufacturing technology. The ability to assemble the particles into nearly defect-free crystals onto various surfaces would be ideal for a range of electronic and optical applications.

Solid-State Refrigerators, Air Conditioners

Hillhouse, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, will work toward developing a technique to produce nanowires, wires so thin that their diameter is smaller than the width of an electron's wavelength.

Researchers believe it is possible that such wires could dramatically alter how electricity and heat flows, possibly enabling the creation of a new class of solid-state refrigerators, air conditioners and power generators. The cooling devices and generators would have no moving parts, making them reliable, small and lightweight; yet they would be just as efficient as conventional equipment.

The Purdue researcher is studying how to use novel materials made from titanium, silicon and oxygen and riddled with billions of tiny pores, to create the nanowires. Through a phenomenon called facilitated ion transport, these materials might be used as molds to form the ultrathin wires.

Faster Moving Machines

Raman, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will use the NSF grant for research aimed at learning how to speed up the operation of high-speed devices and equipment, from computer disk drives to textile-manufacturing machinery.

The machinery is currently limited by a fundamental speed barrier because the thin, flexible material can only spin or move so fast before it begins to vibrate and wobble out of control, hindering performance.

Solving the speed limitation problem could dramatically improve the performance of high-speed devices and machinery. For example, increasing the operating speed of hard disk drives or CD-ROMs could lead to ultra high-speed data transfer rates. The instability is caused by air interacting with the flexible material.

Researchers, in solving complex mathematical equations central to the instability, hope to design new systems that break current speed barriers. One possible solution could be using jets of air to carefully control the flow of air around spinning devices, preventing the instability.

Studies in Algebra

Shipley, an assistant professor of mathematics, will pursue research involving the interplay between the study of algebraic structures and topology, the study of shapes or spaces.

Shipley hopes to use techniques developed in algebraic topology to attack questions that originate in algebra. These techniques include the use of a theory of obstructions, which determines whether certain constructions are possible.

In another project Shipley plans to extend existing algebraic models to include structures involving symmetries.

The research also will include educational components that will include the participation of undergraduate students and the development of a new course for mathematics education majors based on Leonhard Euler's ``Elements of Algebra." The goals of this course are to help mathematics education students master skills in algebra, develop confidence for teaching algebra and understand the motivation for material contained in a standard abstract algebra course.

Shipley will also participate in several initiatives in the Women in Science Program at Purdue.

Coatings for Jet Engines

Trice, an assistant professor of materials engineering, will use his NSF grant for work aimed at understanding precisely how extremely high temperatures alter the structure of thermal barrier coatings that are critical for the operation of turbine engines for aircraft and power plants.

The "yttria stabilized zirconia" coatings have been used in jet engines since the 1970s. The coatings insulate engine parts from high heat, enabling turbines to operate at higher temperatures, which makes them more fuel efficient and less polluting.

The coatings are insulators because they naturally contain numerous microscopic pores and cracks, which contain air – a poor heat conductor. However, when the coatings are subjected to the extremely high heat inside turbine engines, this microscopic structure "densifies," closing up the beneficial pores and cracks. That, in turn, reduces the insulating capacity of the coatings, resulting in higher fuel consumption and requiring costly repairs adding up to millions of dollars annually.

Trice will study the fundamental mechanisms behind densification of the pores and cracks, in work ultimately aimed at solving the problem of heat changing the coating structure.

An educational component of the grant will involve high school, undergraduate and graduate students. Each summer for the grant's duration Trice will train a gifted high school student from Jefferson High School in Lafayette, who will work in the lab. Trice also will closely mentor an undergraduate student in the area of materials science. Graduate students will assist in the research.

Longer Lasting Concrete

Weiss, an assistant professor of civil engineering, will focus on research that uses a variety of sensors and complex life-cycle models to create concrete structures and pavements that last longer and provide increased value to taxpayers and property owners.

While concrete is critical to the nation's infrastructure, the United States is currently plagued by an epidemic of concrete that cracks prematurely. The cracks expose underlying steel to moisture and road salt, leading to corrosion and expensive, inconvenient repairs.

Weiss's work will involve the use of three types of sensors that measure temperature, electrical resistance and a combination of ultrasound and acoustics. The sensors will be embedded in newly poured concretes and then used to assess quality rapidly.

Data from temperature sensors reveal details about chemical processes in newly poured concrete.

Information from electrical sensors show how susceptible steel, used in combination with concrete, is to corrosion.

Acoustic sensors can reveal when and where cracks are forming before they are visible.

All of these data will be incorporated into life-cycle models that simulate how well certain formulations will perform over coming decades, given predicted traffic flow, weather conditions and other factors. Longer-wearing concrete has obvious economic benefits.

The life-cycle performance models might be used by a wide range of entities, including governmental agencies, material suppliers, contractors and insurance companies to predict the long-term performance of structures and to assess the success of material and design improvements.

The grant includes an outreach component designed to encourage high school, undergraduate and graduate students to consider careers in civil engineering, which is critical to the nation's buildings and infrastrature but may lack the sex appeal of other disciplines. The project also will use continuing education courses and demonstrations for practicing engineers, concrete laborers and testing technicians.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,


Walid Aref: (765) 494-1997,

David Corti: (765) 496-6064,

Hugh Hillhouse: (765) 496-6056,

Arvind Raman: (765) 494-5733,

Brooke Shipley: (765) 494-1946,

Rodney Trice: (765) 494-6405

Jason Weiss: (765) 494-2215,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS Publication-quality photographs of the faculty members are available at

(Purdue News Service Photos by Nick Judy)

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