Partnership Advances Mission to Engineer Materials of the Future

As one of only three Rolls-Royce University Technology centers in the country, UVA Engineering is engaged in world-class, collaborative research and development programs in technologies that are critical to advancements in aerospace and advanced manufacturing. Led by Elizabeth J. Opila, professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering, the center at UVA supports six faculty, two post-doctoral research scientists and 15 Ph.D. students, who represent a cross-section of departments within the School of Engineering. Its unique research focus is advanced materials systems.

“Our partnership with Rolls-Royce advances our mission to engineer materials of the future, specifically coatings and ceramic composites,” Opila said. The center’s faculty and students dedicate themselves to fundamental studies of materials’ performance in extreme environments present in turbine engines. The center’s research focus areas are development of ceramic mix composites and environmental barrier coatings—coatings for ceramic composites in the hottest section of an engine.

Rebekah Webster, a recent Ph.D. graduate and now post-doctoral researcher with the Rolls-Royce University Technology Center, conducts experiments and materials analysis to understand how different coatings react with ingested debris. Her Ph.D. project focused on interactions between coating materials and ingested debris such as sand and volcanic ash that can melt in the hot section of a turbine engine. The ingested debris, collectively referred to as CMAS (which stands for CaO-MgO-Al2O3-SiO2 – its main chemical components), can penetrate or react with protective engine coatings, leading to ultimate failure of engine parts. “We prepared model materials that mimic an actual coating system for exposure to molten deposits. By controlling the preparation of the model material with respect to composition and microstructure, we were able to optimize CMAS resistance,” Webster explained. These findings can lead to new or customized coatings that allow engines to reach higher temperatures with greater efficiency.

To increase access to experiential learning at the center, the School of Engineering grants a Rolls-Royce fellowship to one incoming Ph.D. student each year. Mike Roach is the Rolls-Royce fellow for 2019-2020. He credits the fellowship for allowing him to develop a research project that benefits multiple sectors. “My research is focused on environmental cracking of additively manufactured parts. Additive manufacturing has the potential to reduce cost and lead times for low-rate production parts. Due to the rapid thermal cycling of additively manufactured parts, unique microstructures can develop. The goal of my project to tie these unique microstructures to the macroscopic cracking behavior of the alloys,” Roach explained. 

UVA joined the Rolls-Royce University Technology Center network in 2014, elevating UVA Engineering's research and education programs so that researchers can create new knowledge in sectors that are critical to our society and economy. Students affiliated with the center become the next generation of leaders to advance breakthroughs in these fields.