Center for Composite Materials - University of Delaware

Research that is out of this world

Article courtesy of Plastic News

In 2016, more than 200 student researchers and interns were involved with projects and activities at the University of Delaware Center for Composite Materials (UD-CCM), where Director John Gillespie Jr. has helped establish a top facility and open-lab philosophy.

About 120 projects are ongoing to advance the use of lightweight but strong composites for aerospace, automotive, military, medical and consumer goods applications. Students, faculty, research professionals, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scholars collaborate along with government and industry sponsors.

The center’s most recent newsletter highlights the effort to take spacesuits to the next level. NASA is trying to prove the viability of the Z-2 suit for use on the harsh planet of Mars. The center helped design and fabricate composite components of a working prototype for ILC Dover, a NASA contractor. The work was done at the center’s Applied & Technology Transfer Lab, which is an off-site facility that conforms to industry protocol.

The prototype has a hard upper torso and composite briefs to withstand impact from micrometeorites that hurl through the thin atmosphere of the Red Planet and become a ballistic hazard. That’s just one of other environmental concerns NASA has as aerospace companies like SpaceX and Boeing compete to build the rocket that will carry the first person to step foot on Mars, possibly as soon as the 2030s.

Gillespie, a member of the Society of Plastics Engineers since 1990, became director of the composite center in 1996 as well as a university-industry consortium that had three members. The consortium now has 60 members participating in the center’s research and development program, including Arkema, Boeing, Dixie Chemical, Dow, Owens Corning, Sabic, Samsung, Spirit AeroSystems Inc. and Toray.

The front view of NASA’s Z-2 spacesuit. The University of Delaware Center for Composite Materials is working with NASA to prove the suit’s viability for use on Mars.

The center is on the radar of many companies. In November, engineers visited from SpaceX, the
Hawthorne, Calif-based company founded in 2002 by Elon Musk to advance space technology with the goal of colonizing other planets. The SpaceX team offered advice about improving manufacturing methodologies at the center and collected resumes from students.

Gillespie has advised more than 100 students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees and many have gone on to successful careers in academia, government and industry. Last year he received the Wayne W. Stinchcomb Memorial Lecture and Award from ASTM International’s committee on composite materials, in part for mentoring students through “career engagement in the academic world.”

To address the current shortage of skilled workers, Gillespie suggested in an email that post-secondary educators consider “new curriculum development on manufacturing of polymer composite materials that link community colleges with major research universities with strong industry involvement and guidance to train the next generation of technicians and engineers.”

Gillespie earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of ​ Delaware. He considers his first job in plastics as a research staff member at the center following his master’s thesis in mechanical engineering.

He said his early research focus was on injection and transfer molding of short fiber polymer matrix composites. He later researched welding and fusion bonding of thermoplastic composites using resistance, ultrasonic and induction heating methods.

“This evolved into automated placement of thermoplastic composites,” Gillespie said. “During this period, I became a faculty member and director of UD-CCM and principal investigator for our industrial consortium application of composite materials to industrial products, where industry provided funding for student education and technology transfer.”

Gillespie works carefully to maintain a balance between basic and applied research while keeping the center at the forefront of both composite science and real-world engineering problems that benefit sponsors and society. He has received more than $195 million to support his research and the center overall, according to his executive summary.

Personally, Gillespie said he is most proud of a project to develop the center’s induction-based lamination process and equipment.

“This project started with basic research with one of my Ph.D. students and my interdisciplinary group of researchers here at CCM,” Gillespie said, describing the group as materials scientists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and physicists.

“[We] matured the process into fully automated equipment that was successfully transitioned to industry and went into production. The project went from basic research to innovation and commercialization using modeling and simulation of the material, process and automated equipment to accelerate the insertion of new materials and processes into products.”

Gillespie holds 20 patents and has written or co-authored more than 800 published articles, including 18 books or book chapters. Of all the ongoing work at the center, he is most excited about solving a challenge for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Gillespie said: “Under DARPA funding, we are developing next generation composite materials comprised of aligned short fiber with aerospace performance at automotive affordability in the form of tailored blanks that can be formed like sheet metal at high production rates.”

In the meantime, he remains active with SPE and is currently on the board of directors of the Composites Division.


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