Five materials scientists at HBCU Tuskegee University are recent recipients of a $1 million award from a National Science Foundation program designed to support the research and education capabilities of minority-serving institutions.
For more than six decades, the National Science Foundation has carried out its mission to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” Today the NSF funds roughly 20% of the federally supported basic research projects conducted in academia. It’s no wonder that, in commemoration of the agency’s 65th anniversary, the hashtag, #NSFfunded, was trending on Twitter earlier this month.
Thanks to a program launched more than seven years ago, several HBCUs that emphasize graduate-level research can also say they’ve been #NSFfunded. The funding agency’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program “provides support to enhance the research capabilities of minority-serving institutions through the establishment of centers that effectively integrate education and research.” In addition to establishing CREST centers on the campuses of such institutions, the program also funds Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering (RISE) awards to expand the capacity of specific research programs at HBCUs and to increase the production of minority doctoral students. (A list of all CREST awards—50, so far—can be found here.)
Alabama’s Tuskegee University is one of the most recent NSF-RISE awardees. Already, the university is home to the CREST Center of Excellence in Nanobiomaterials Derived from Biorenewable and Waste Resources. Now it will receive $1 million for the “Enhancement of Research and Educational Infrastructure in Nanobiomaterials Science and Engineering.” According to a university press release, the new grant will be used to “study and possibly create new products made from natural waste, such as eggshells, for biomedical, food packaging and other industrial applications.”
The research will be led by five professors in Tuskegee’s Materials Science and Engineering department: Vijaya Rangari, Shaik Jeelani, Mahesh Hosur, Shaik Zainuddin, and Temesgen Samuel—Rangari, Hosur, and department head Jeelani are also co-principal investigators for the university’s CREST center. Both efforts aim to use nanoparticles derived from biological material to develop stronger and lighter composite materials, which can be found in skyscrapers, bridges, race cars, and in new lightweight aircraft.
Instead of the carbon-fiber composite material found in some of the new jumbo jets, Rangari and his colleagues have focused on embedding composites with nanoparticles made from egg shells, which, among other desired properties, are exceptionally strong, wear resistant, highly porous, and corrosion resistant. Apparently, 25 million eggs are used and discarded at food-processing plants every year in the US alone; so this is also a recycling solution.
The researchers’ challenge has been to synthesize the nanoparticles, disperse it in a polymer matrix, and test the performance of the resulting nanocomposite. So far, they’ve demonstrated a novel synthesis technique in which they first pulverize the egg shells then subject the powder to high-frequency, high-intensity sound in the presence of a chemical bath. In a paper published last year, they showed how their egg-shell nanoparticles made a composite-filler tougher, lighter, and more heat resistant.
Besides developing other bio-nanocomposite materials—including scaffolding for tissue engineering and food packaging that’s bacteria-resistant and biodegradable—the research team is also expected to use the RISE award as a vehicle for enhancing the educational experiences of students on the Tuskegee campus. To that end, the department intends to attract more students to their graduate program by offering a minor in materials science and engineering to all STEM majors. They will also use some of the grant money as startup funding for junior faculty members.