Advanced Materials and Structures in Extreme Environments

Humans have long pushed the boundaries of what is possible. We want longer bridges in harsher environments, impenetrable military equipment and lighter aircraft that take us farther with less fuel.

To do so will require experts in structural mechanics, material design, superalloys, colloid engineering, corrosion protection and adhesives. University of Rhode Island engineers have the expertise and the equipment to advance our understanding in these fields and leverage that knowledge into everyday products.

“Design under routine conditions, that has been done,” Professor Arun Shukla says. “This is new.”

Using shock tubes, a 2,000-gallon underwater pressure tank and high-speed cameras, Shukla’s team literally blows things up to learn how to keep them together. Armed with the results, Shukla and his colleagues have written the book on how materials will act under extreme temperatures, pH, heat transfer rates and pressure.

Other engineers are exploring the affect of extreme environments on carbon composite materials by studying them at the molecular level. With the help of the college’s new scanning electron microscope and chemical engineering labs, researchers are peering deeper than ever before into the bonds that hold materials together.

aluminum alloy 5086-H32
A scanning electron microscope photo of sensitized aluminum alloy 5086-H32 showing an intergranular attack. Taken by chemical engineering graduate student Andrew Murphy.

Professor Richard Brown says providing insights into understanding how to prevent new materials from corroding in environments such as salt water is required. With that understanding, researchers have turned to developing new surface treatments for metals to improve how adhesives bond composite materials such as carbon fiber and prevent degradation, and to combat processes such as intergranular corrosion of aluminum alloys.

“We’re not just developing the adhesive but a complete system that improves the durability of the bond,” Brown says.

The demand for such a system is booming. Because composite materials are usually lighter but just as strong as traditional metals, engineers are using them in aircraft, ships, automobiles, wind turbines and even cell phones. Less weight typically means better fuel efficiency and less material required, thus reducing costs. Plus the materials tend to have a higher tolerance for damage and are easier to maintain.

“People are just now discovering all the benefits of these materials in terms of cost savings and their performance in extreme environments,” Shukla says. “Our research is helping to advance the field.”

Arun Shukla
Professor, mechanical engineering
Wales Hall
92 Upper College Road
Kingston, RI 02881 USA

Professor Richard Brown
Crawford Hall
16 Greenhouse Road
Kingston, RI 02881 USA