UI engineers co-win 5-year, $7.5M grant to apply machine learning to energetic materials design

Office of Strategic Communications

Rockets and other high-speed flying machines require energetic materials to escape Earth’s gravity or to fly at very high altitudes. Hypersonic vehicles, aircraft that fly at five to 10 times the speed of sound (i.e. at more than a mile per second) demand fuels that release energy at very fast rates. Leadership by the United States in the hypersonic flight regime requires deep scientific understanding of advanced next generation energetic materials, but predicting the behavior of such materials is no easy task.

In an effort to increase the capability of scientists to make such predictions, the U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a five-year, $7.5 million grant to a team led by H.S. Udaykumar, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Iowa, and Tommy Sewell, professor of chemistry at the University of Missouri. Stephen Baek, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Iowa, also is part of the research team. 

“This collaborative project brings together experts in chemistry, materials science, engineering mechanics, and machine learning to tackle the complex problem of designing fuels for very high speed applications,” says Udaykumar. ”Flights at high speeds also present other design challenges. Safety is a huge concern due to extreme pressure, temperature, and stress. So to design safe operating systems under those conditions, we must understand the science and be able to reliably model their performance. We need experts from chemistry, materials science, physics, and engineering to work together with their specialist knowledge and cutting-edge toolboxes.”

Udaykumar will use his computer simulation capabilities to study the physics of energetic materials under extreme conditions, while Baek will use machine learning tools to understand the behavior of the materials from data generated by laboratory and computer experiments.

The grant is part of the Department of Defense’s multidisciplinary university research initiative (MURI) awards program, which awarded grants to 24 teams across the nation in 2019. The team also includes researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia University, Purdue University, and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.  

“The project helps place Iowa on the map as a key contributor to the science of materials under extreme conditions. This has important national security and safety implications. Materials can experience extreme conditions in hypersonic environments, including hypervelocity impacts in space and on earth, in rocket motors. or in the next generation of hypersonic propulsion devices. Therefore, the science and technology to be developed in this project can be useful in a wide range of futuristic applications,” says Udaykumar.

For more information on MURI, visit the website.