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MS & E faculty member wins NSF CAREER award

Paul  Voyles

Paul Voyles (large image)

Research aimed at figuring out the atomic structure of glass has earned Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Paul Voyles a prestigious 2004 Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation.

Voyles, who joined the Materials Science and Engineering Department last year, plans to use a novel electron microscopy technique he helped develop to study the atomic structure of metallic glass — metals that do not crystalize, and therefore resemble glass, when cooled.

The NSF CAREER awards, among the most prestigious given to faculty members who are just beginning their academic careers, are granted to creative projects that effectively integrate research and education.

According to Voyles, the atomic structure of glass has long mystified scientists. Atoms in glass are jumbled together — resembling marbles in a jar, for example, as opposed to eggs in a carton. But beyond that, little is known about how atoms order themselves in glass. That's inhibited the development of new, glass-based materials.

Scientists have come to believe that useful properties of metallic glass can be attributed to some level of nanoscale atomic ordering. But such structures have been difficult to measure. Voyles has proposed using fluctuation electron microscopy, a novel quantitative electron microscopy technique uniquely sensitive to subtle structural order in disordered materials, on metallic glass. These experiments will be complemented by electron diffraction, electron spectroscopy, and atomistic structural modeling.

Insight into this atomic structure should allow researchers to figure out ways to develop better materials that utilize the desirable properties of metallic glass, such as its strength and magnetic force, according to Voyles.

As part of the research project, Voyles has also proposed developing educational materials for graduate science students and middle school students. The materials for graduate students will focus on advanced electron microscopy skills with an emphasis on nanotechnology. The materials for middle school students will focus on experiments, such as packing hard spheres with items such as marbles, to guide the understanding of structures and materials.