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CAREER award funds research on carbon nanotube interactions

Maschmann sits at his desk with a book.

Matt Maschmann, an assistant professor in MU’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, recently earned a five-year, $500,000 NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his proposal, “CAREER: In-Situ Process-Structure-Property Evaluation of CNT Forests.” Photo by Jennifer Hollis.

Understanding the properties of carbon nanotubes (CNT) and carbon nanotube forests has been the main focus of Matt Maschmann’s research career. And now, they’re the focus of a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

Maschmann, an assistant professor in MU’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, recently earned a five-year, $500,000 NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his proposal, “CAREER: In-Situ Process-Structure-Property Evaluation of CNT Forests.” The NSF CAREER Award program is the organization’s most notable award for outstanding tenure-track faculty early in their careers.

“This is one of the rare opportunities where they want you to talk in first person and say, ‘This fits into my career, and in five years’ time…’” Maschmann said. “In this five years, I’ll accomplish this step, and this small step is very crucial to my career.”

Carbon nanotubes have been a big focus of Maschmann’s research since the Mizzou Engineering alumnus joined the faculty of his alma mater in 2013. The goal for this particular grant is to uncover the process of exactly how and why carbon nanotubes in a relatively dense array grow and interact the way they do.

“Generally speaking, researchers can look at the nanoscale catalytic seed particles before they support carbon nanotube growth and then look at the resulting carbon nanotubes after their collective growth,” Maschmann said. “But everything in between, the process, you just have to try and infer. And it’s really complicated. What we want to do is look at and simulate the actual growth and interaction of nanotube populations.”

Single carbon nanotubes have incredible properties in terms of strength, flexibility, thermal conductivity and more. But when you grow them together in groups, attractive forces between the nanotubes cause them to kink and buckle, which diminishes their properties. A single nanotube has strength properties similar to that of diamond, while forests can diminish the consistency down to that of rubber. If researchers could identify which growth properties cause CNT forests to grow into a particular rigidity or flexibility, they could potentially customize growth of CNT forests to fit the properties they needed.

“There’s a wide envelope where you can control properties, and by using the same materials, come up with a different set of properties and hopefully a prescribed set of properties,” Maschmann said.

The goal is to run synthesis experiments in an electron microscope, then insert observations and measurements into a simulation, one unique to Maschmann’s lab. The eventual goal is to build up enough of a database of information and use artificial intelligence to run several simulations at once based on different sets of parameters. That way, Maschmann and his team can find the simulations that give them the results they’re looking for and can work on verifying them experimentally, saving both time and money.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is say what synthesis conditions would allow us to have a carbon nanotube forest with X stiffness and Y electrical resistance?” he explained. “What would I need to do to target a set of properties and a set of objectives I want to achieve?”

The NSF CAREER Award also comes with an outreach component. Maschmann is hoping to partner with the Summers@Mizzou program for middle school and high school students on a program that will generate interest in and further explain the concept of working with nanoscale materials.

“In simplistic way, we want to explain to middle school age kids what nanotechnology is, why it’s potentially important, and on a fundamental level, how could we work with materials so small,” Maschmann said.