Winner of Two Early Career Awards Devises Recipes for Tomorrow’s Materials

Stefano CurtaroloStefano Curtarolo, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, is developing computational tools designed to predict the recipes for tomorrow's advanced materials. He aims to identify the best new materials for just about any high-tech job, from the automotive, aerospace or marine industries to nanotechnology and future sources of energy. For his efforts, Curtarolo has won a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from The National Science Foundation (NSF). For related materials work, he also recently won an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator award.

"These tools will help to choose the right material, tools and building processes," while reducing the need for costly experimentation, Curtarolo said. "A titanium boat might cost as much as one billion dollars. Understanding what happens to materials at the molecular level when tiny amounts of impurities are introduced during welding, for example, could have a huge impact on the reliability of ships, from submarines to oil tankers."

The CAREER award, which is expected to provide $400,000 in funding over the next five years, recognizes and supports the early career development activities of those teacher-scholars who are most likely to become academic leaders, according to the NSF. The ONR award combined with matching funds from the Navy has provided almost another $520,000.

From Submarines to Nanotubes

While contributing to the design of macroscale structures, Curtarolo's work begins at the nanoscale level with careful consideration of the chemistry. His research will elucidate how particular metals, in combination with one another, will look and act under certain conditions of temperature and pressure. That behavior is traditionally described in a graph, called a "phase diagram," that defines whether a material will exist in a solid, liquid, gas or somewhere in between.

"We know the phase diagrams for the macroscopic world, but we largely don't know how a nanodrop of something will act," Curtarolo said. "If you have one liter of water and a kilo of salt, you know everything. But what happens if you have one nanogram?"

That's a question Curtarolo said he intends to answer for metals including iron, molybdenum and cobalt, all of which might be used to grow carbon nanotubes. The miniscule carbon tubes have novel properties--including extraordinary strength and unique electrical properties--that make them potentially useful for nanotechnology, electronics, optics and other fields of materials science.

"We'll direct experiments toward novel compounds," he said. "We might discover you can't grow nanotubes with iron, but you can with iron and molybdenum. It's going to tell us what to use."

Curtarolo has already shown his approach can yield valuable new materials. Using a similar computational method last year, he predicted a superconductive "metal sandwich" of lithium and boron. Now, he is aiming even higher. "In the case of the superconductor, we got one structure," Curtarolo said. "Now we want hundreds to thousands." Curtarolo holds a masters in physics from Penn State University and a doctorate in materials science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to the previous research fields, Curtarolo is also interested in materials for nuclear engineering. He works on high temperature corrosion characterization of pipes in sodium-cooled nuclear reactors and in modeling ceramic fabrication techniques for nuclear detectors.