By this time next year, researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology who study the properties of various types of materials will have a highly sophisticated scanning tool available to help them, thanks to a grant of nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation.

By this time next year, researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology who study the properties of various types of materials will have a highly sophisticated scanning tool available to help them, thanks to a grant of nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation.

The $918,397 NSF grant will help fund the purchase of a high-resolution, 4-D X-ray computed tomography (XCT) system. This Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) award will allow researchers at Missouri S&T and partner institutions to conduct a broad range of fundamental materials research.

According to the NSF, “the knowledge gained will enable advances in the design of novel and high-performance materials – leading to smart and more resilient structures, better medical treatments and enhanced energy efficiency.”

Researchers at S&T say the device could make the university a center for advanced materials research. 

“With this instrument on campus, Missouri S&T will potentially become the leader of science and technology research in the region especially for Missouri,” says Dr. Monday Okoronkwo, principal investigator (PI) on the grant and assistant professor of chemical and biochemical engineering. “We’re hoping S&T’s new capabilities will make our researchers more competitive and strengthen our education. We cannot exhaust the potential applications.”

In hospitals, medical personnel use CT scanners to examine internal organs, but the S&T device will be a more advanced tool, capable of producing higher-resolution images.

“The XCT can be used to characterize a broad range of materials, from soft biological materials to engineering materials, which are much harder than human organs,” says Dr. Hongyan Ma, a co-principal investigator (co-PI) on the award and an S&T assistant professor in civil, architectural and environmental engineering. “The XCT can be used to study cement concrete, metals, ceramics, glass and 3-D printed parts out of these materials.”

Ma says the S&T XCT system’s customized characterization modules make it unlike other similar systems. The modules will allow researchers to study materials under realistic conditions as they undergo stresses, changes to temperature and humidity, and specific atmospheric changes. The high-speed scanning rate of this XCT will enable the so-called 4-D scanning – tracing relatively fast evolutions of 3-D microstructure following the fourth dimension – time.

For example, the system could provide insight into the degradation of concrete in a bridge exposed to extreme environmental conditions over time. The XCT could allow study, in real time, of the effects of mechanical and thermal loads on development and propagation of cracks in various porous materials such as ceramics. It could also allow researchers to examine the effects of various drug treatments on live cells in real time.

The instrument will be housed in the Materials Research Center in Straumanis-James Hall on the S&T campus, but it will be open to anyone in the University of Missouri System as well as academic and industrial partners to look at any type of materials.

“The X-ray micro XCT could be used to look at materials before, during and after applying a process,” says Dr. Aditya Kumar, co-PI and assistant professor in materials science and engineering. “Anyone working on concrete or ceramics or any type of material – with small or large samples – can use this. We have researchers looking at biomaterials with live cells, and they can use the XCT to perform microstructure examinations of these live cells in real time.”

Okoronkwo says he plans to use the device to study the degradation of nuclear waste glasses to assist the nuclear power industry with managing its waste material.

“We’re going to use this equipment to monitor that in 3-D form as well as in real time,” Okoronkwo says. “The capability of this equipment is going to allow us to study this in a way that nobody has ever done.” 

Okoronkwo says the instrument will strengthen the education offered at Missouri S&T because it will enhance courses as instructors incorporate the device’s capabilities into classes.

Part of the goals of the grant are also focused on education, training and outreach activities to S&T’s partners in K-12 programs, graduate programs, and historically black universities such as Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. The grant will allow other institutions to send graduate and undergraduate students to S&T to use the instrument for their research and incorporate the data collected in their project and lab reports in courses.

Kumar hopes the programs will spark greater interest in STEM education among elementary and high school students. Toward that end, the university will use this instrument in two of its existing summer camps – the ASM Materials Camp and the Jackling Introduction to Engineering camp.

“If you show a student the microstructure of concrete, how it looks inside with colorful images inside, it will be much more inspirational,” says Kumar. “We can do these in real time. It would be a nice way to deliver the content to show what we in material science can do. This instrument will be unique, and we will be in a unique position to provide students and their teachers this sort of experience.”

The grant award covers about 70 percent of the cost of the instrument with a 30 percent match coming from Missouri S&T. Researchers hope to have the XCT scanner in place by fall 2021. Once fully installed and an instrument operator is trained, researchers will begin looking at the microstructure of materials. The researchers expect to be able to begin implementing programs for partner institutions and K-12 programs in 2021-22.