Two Pratt Professors Earn Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Awards

Two Pratt School of Engineering faculty members have been awarded a 2014 Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research, making Duke the only university with multiple mechanical engineers/materials scientists honored as recipients. The program funds researchers who are within the first five years of beginning their first tenure-track position and show exceptional promise for doing creative research. Each award comes with a maximum of $170,000 in funding for up to three years.

Duke’s recipients include Xuanhe Zhao and Michael Zavlanos, both assistant professors of mechanical engineering and materials science, for their proposals, “Harnessing Extraordinary Surface and Bulk Properties of Graphene-Polymer Nanocomposite for Advanced Naval Coating,” and, “Distributed Real-Time Optimization of Mobile Wireless Networks,” respectively.

Zavlanos’s project will develop a new framework for the distributed and on-the-fly optimization of mobile wireless networks. When existing global communication infrastructures such as satellites go down, combat troops in the field need a backup plan. Given the proper algorithms, communication devices will be able to autonomously form standalone wireless networks that can determine admissible end-to-end communication rates, routes, pairwise link capacities, and power allocation across frequency and fading states in a distributed way.

These networks will be formed in a distributed manner, with the wireless devices using information that is available within their immediate communication neighborhood. The ultimate goal is an intelligent, distributed, mobile communication network that operates in closed loop with the marines, as it reconfigures and adapts to the mission to provide marines with reliable and up-to-the-minute communications and availability of information, particularly in austere, non-line-of-sight environments.

Zhao’s project will develop a new type of surface coating for naval vessels and other applications. The material is a nanoscale combination of state-of-the-art polymers and graphene—a sheet made of a single layer of carbon atoms that has remarkable qualities like high strength, low weight and efficient thermal and electrical conduction.

The sheets of graphene are crumpled and integrated with existing polymer technology. The resulting material can dynamically change its surface patterns when an electrical voltage is applied to knock off any bacterial biofilm buildup. The graphene also makes the material extremely tough, potentially providing a new coating technology against biofouling and corrosion with unprecedented effectiveness and durability.