Diamond opportunity: MS&E graduate student tackles novel research questions while collaborating with local tech company

// Materials Science & Engineering

Image of DLC coated drill

Image credit: NCD Technologies

Working together, UW-Madison materials science and engineering PhD student Sachin Muley and engineers from NCD Technologies have determined optimal recipes for a carbon coating for an industrial application while also furthering research in this area. The 10-month project set out to understand and optimize mechanical properties in amorphous carbon coatings that NCD uses for industrial applications. A paper based on this research is currently in development.

Photo of Sachin Muley
Sachin Muley

The project, which ran from August 2018 to May 2019, was funded by the University of Wisconsin Advanced Materials Industrial Consortium (AMIC) as part of the organization’s Seed program and supported with in-kind contributions from the Madison-based company. The UW AMIC is led by the Wisconsin Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).

As designed by the Seed program, the project was managed by Muley with the guidance and mentorship of two members of the NCD Technologies team, founder and CEO Patrick Heaney (PhDMS&E ’09), and materials scientist Aiping Zeng.

This program provides companies a rare opportunity to explore blue-sky scientific questions and to build relationships with promising young scientists and engineers.

As with all AMIC Seed projects, the genesis of this collaboration came from the participating company. AMIC member companies submitted general topics of interest to them. Muley took up the mantle and worked with the scientists at NCD Technologies to develop a seed proposal that was ultimately funded based on recommendations of the AMIC Industrial Advisory Board members.

“This process was great. When we received initial results, we were then able to quickly add additional samples that we and Sachin thought would be interesting to study,” says Heaney.

The research proved interesting from the outset.

“We were initially surprised when there was not a large difference between the hardness of our ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ coatings,” says Heaney. “It was also surprising that we had a lower coefficient of friction with our multilayer coatings than with a single layer coating.”

AMIC Seed projects are conducted by one student or a small team of UW-Madison graduate students and/or post-doctoral researchers who are advised by a UW-Madison faculty member. For these students and postdocs, the goal of the AMIC Seed program is to provide real-world experience in an industrial setting. Participants get an inside look at problems or challenges facing industry and they work to develop solutions. They also gain experience in the processes around funded research from proposal development to final reporting.

“I enjoyed working with Dr. Heaney and Dr. Zeng at NCD Technologies,” says Muley. “I felt their mentoring style was quite constructive and supportive. I received regular feedback about the experimental results and work plans.”

Heaney also pointed out that NCD Technologies will receive positive exposure through such activities as Muley’s presentations of his work at conferences and through the publication of a research paper.

Many PhDs in science and engineering pursue careers in industry, so there is a need for training and mentoring to prepare them for that career track.

“Graduate students in science and engineering develop a lot of industry-transferrable technical and soft skills,” says Muley. “More should be done to help them discover opportunities in industry upon graduation.”

Looking forward, Muley suggested there is potential to expand the AMIC Seed Program to include multi-year projects. “These could culminate simultaneously in intellectual property and research papers with the potential to even contribute to PhD theses,” says Muley. “This type of project fosters a sense of independence and ownership for graduate students. And, it provides valuable expert mentorship that is hard to replicate elsewhere.”

Muley says the AMIC Seed program helped him sharpen many skills that are valuable in an industry setting. “Through the AMIC Seed program, I got a chance to really own an industrial project starting right from the proposal stage to budget management and manuscript preparation for the dissemination of our results,” he says.

This story was originally published by the UW AMIC.

Author: Staff