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The Difference the Right Tools Can Make

Generous 2018 Gift from Alumnus Thomas Dudash Enables Foundational MEMS Research

PITTSBURGH (Jan. 16, 2019) —  Sometimes, in order to understand the big picture, you need to start by assessing the smallest of details. It’s a truth that engineers know well — selecting the right materials can mean the success or failure of a given application.

As technology advances, researchers have assessed engineering materials at the microscopic level for applications ranging from nanomachines to semiconductors, specialized coatings to robotics. For researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, looking closely enough to engineer materials for cutting-edge applications would not have been possible without the generous $1 million gift that Thomas F. Dudash provided in 2018.

Mr. Dudash, an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh who received his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering in 1960, never imagined that he’d have a million dollars to donate for advanced research. After a lifelong career with Allegheny Ludlum, he wanted to share his success with the next generation of materials engineers.

The gift was designated for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS), the successor to the metallurgical engineering program. The gift enabled the Department to purchase nano-manipulators, specialized sample holders that allow researchers to make in situ observations of materials behavior at the nano-scale using transmission electron microscopy.

Mao Graphic In-situ atomistic observation of a gold nano-crystal from Mao's research.

Those observations have led to foundational discoveries that are crucial for materials development. Scott X. Mao, MEMS professor, uses a specially designed sample holder to study how metals elongate and deform at the atomic level. Microelectronic mechanical systems rely on components made from microscopic structures of these metals, but metals behave differently at such a reduced length scale. Understanding the mechanical behavior of nanostructured metallic materials will enable the further development of strong and reliable components for advanced nanomechanical devices. Without such holder, it’s impossible to carry out an atomic scaled mechanical and electrical experiments under the most advanced high resolution electron microscope to achieve the understanding.

Jacobs Graphic Electron microscopy is used to observe and test individual nanoparticles on flat surface in Jacobs' research.
Tevis Jacobs, assistant professor in MEMS, was able to acquire a specialized holder, which enables research advancing the understanding of micro- and nano-surfaces and engineering more stable nanoparticles. Nanoparticles play an important role in advanced industries and technologies, from electronics and pharmaceuticals to catalysts and sensors. Because they can be as small as 10 atoms in diameter, they are susceptible to coarsening with continued use, reducing their functionality and degrading performance. Jacobs received a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for this work that will utilize the specialized holder to directly study and measure adhesion properties of nanoparticles and their supporting substrates. Thanks to Mr. Dudash’s gift, Jacobs and his team were able to procure the only commercially-available tool that can manipulate the materials as precisely as is necessary to perform their impactful research.
Chmielus Graphic 3 Polymer with embedded copper molecules. 

The gift also enabled Assistant Professor Markus Chmielus’s research analyzing 3D-printed denture frames. His group has used a SkyScan 1272 micro-computed tomography (microCT) scanner – purchased and maintained using gift funds - to export an accurate model of an existing denture, then used binder jet 3D-printing to reproduce the model. The scanner can analyze samples prior to 3D-printing as well to look for porosity and how that porosity changes when heat treatment is added, helping researchers develop a processing step to eliminate porosity. So far, the group has used the microCT to evaluate densities of green and sintered binder jet 3D-printed metals, including nickel-based superalloys, functional magnetic materials, and a commonly used titanium alloy, Ti-6Al-4V.
Robertson Graphic Image from Roberts' paper in ATVB, "Calcification in Human Intracranial Aneurysms Is Highly Prevalent and Displays Both Atherosclerotic and Nonatherosclerotic Types."

Anne Robertson, MEMS and BioE professor, and her team use the micro-CT in their NIH-supported work studying the causes for rupture of intracranial aneurysms (IAs). Robertson and her team used the specialized micro-CT equipment to analyze aneurysm tissue from patients and found that calcification is substantially more prevalent than previously thought. The micro-CT was able to identify microcalcifications as small as 3 micrometers. The team discovered differences in the types of calcification in ruptured versus unruptured aneurysms, made possible using the micro-CT system. The work was published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology (ATVB (doi:10.1161/ATVBAHA.119.312922). This improved understanding could lead to new therapeutic targets and, ultimately, improved outcomes for patients with aneurysms.

Great innovations require the right tools. Thanks to Mr. Dudash’s gift, the MEMS Department has the tools to innovate, discover and create—tools that have produced an important base of knowledge that manufacturers will be building on for years to come.

“It is generous gifts from donors like Mr. Dudash that enable advanced research and, ultimately, discovery,” said Brian Gleeson, Tack Chaired Professor and MEMS Department Chairman. “Moreover, the funds provided by Mr. Dudash are being used strategically to create specialized capabilities that greatly help to procure further funding from agencies and, hence, further bolster research activities.” 

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick