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Penn State to lead $30 million university research alliance

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Friday, August 21, 2020

The Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has awarded a combined total of $51.1 million to two university research alliances to counter threats of destruction, with a specific focus on improving current and developing future warfighter technology. Penn State is leading the Interaction of Ionizing Radiation with Matter University Research Alliance, which was awarded $30 million for the next five years, with the potential of extending the alliance for a total of nine years and $54 million of funding with additional funding opportunities available. 

Led by Doug Wolfe, head of the Department of Metals, Ceramics and Coatings Processing in the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL), professor of materials science and engineering, professor of nuclear engineering by courtesy and professor of engineering science and mechanics, Penn State’s efforts are focused in ARL, the College of Engineering, and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. The alliance includes three other permanent members: the University of Michigan (UM), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Florida (UF). The rest of the alliance includes eight other universities and several national laboratories and industry partners.

“We have a very strong, multidisciplinary group who proposed transformative research addressing DTRA’s needs,” Wolfe said. “Our collaboration consists of extremely talented investigators from a variety of institutions and disciplines with a wide range of technical expertise.” 

Primary Penn State contributors include Meghan Flannery Hayes, head of the Department of Complex Systems Monitoring at ARL; Marek Flaska and Azaree Lintereur, both of whom are assistant professors in the Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering; Aman Haque, professor of mechanical engineering and engineering science and mechanics; and Saptarshi Das, assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics and law, policy and engineering. 

The team is investigating how ionizing radiation interacts with matter. According to Wolfe, this research could lead to higher-resolution radiation detectors capable of identifying dirty bombs or concealed radiation materials. By understanding the material interactions, the researchers plan to design low-cost, high-efficiency room-temperature detectors that would eliminate the need for extreme temperatures to control detecting materials. They also plan to develop electronics and systems that would be secure against radiation damage. 

“Current electronics, including banking and satellite systems, could not withstand a nuclear explosion,” Wolfe said. “We hope to develop devices and systems that would be insensitive to radiation. In the event of a bomb explosion, we would still be able to communicate with one another.” 

University Research Alliance team members are focusing on the basic research of ionizing radiation interactions over three research areas, with research area leads from MIT — materials, UM — devices and device integration, and UF — survival and response. The rotating alliance members will contribute via shorter-term projects that explore specific sub goals of the larger aims. 

Beyond the primary research goals, the alliance has also established a workforce development program that gave the team their competitive edge, according to Wolfe. 

“Fundamental to every stage of research is education,” Wolfe said. 

The team aims to foster an inclusive academic community to recruit and train undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to become the next generation of researchers and engineers. 

“This is a landscape-changing opportunity for nuclear engineering at Penn State,” said Jean Paul Allain, head of the Ken and Mary Alice Lindquist Department of Nuclear Engineering. “Our team has already demonstrated their collaborative research strengths through a variety of other projects, and now they are combining forces to elevate ionizing radiation interaction research in a way that will transform how we protect against radioactive threats, as well as how we innovate and design digital devices and radiation-hardened electronic systems. Scholars at all levels will come to Penn State to contribute to this project.”