Whalen Models Laser-Material Interactions to Make 3-D Printing More Efficient and Accurate

Fourth-year Brendan Whalen has earned a scholarship from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium to improve 3-D printing processes while working alongside members of the materials informatics research group led by Prasanna Balachandran, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Whalen is pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering. He works closely with Carl Knospe, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Additionally, Whalen will earn a Bachelor of Arts in physics, working closely with associate professor Cass Sackett.

Whalen comes from Alexandria, Virginia, where he earned his high school diploma from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

“My high school physics class is where I fell in love with engineering, because it explains the way everything around us works,” Whalen said, describing an experiment in which he had to place and roll a steel ball off of a table to land in a can on the ground.

“Our whole grade was based on whether we hit the target,” he said. “That’s where I really understood that I can use these mathematical equations to explain the world around us.”

Whalen completed his senior research project working in the high school’s computer science lab, where he learned programming languages and the steps in the research process.

“My amazing teachers and the research lab experience prepared me really well for UVA,” he said.

Brendan Whalen bio photo

A class project and Balachandran’s invitation to work with his research group inspired Whalen's proposal to model laser-material interactions in 3-D printing of metal parts. He envisions astronauts using 3-D printing to make things they need to live on and explore another planet.

As a first-year at UVA Engineering, Whalen gravitated toward aerospace engineering.

“I went through the curriculum at the same time watching NASA and commercial launches proliferate, and I thought, maybe I can be a part of making that happen, to get us to Mars,” Whalen said.

Whalen met Balachandran as a second-year student in a class on computational methods in mechanical and aerospace engineering. Whalen’s class project and Balachandran’s invitation to join his research group the following summer inspired his scholarship proposal to model laser-material interactions in 3-D printing of metal parts. Whalen envisions astronauts using 3-D printing to make things they need to live on and explore another planet.

Whalen recently partnered up with Nick Wu, a third-year student who is majoring in math and also enrolled in the engineering science program with a concentration in computer science. Whalen leads the modeling effort, and Wu’s work focuses on rigorous mathematical analysis and uncertainty quantification for process optimization. Their partnership will make the 3-D printing process more accurate and efficient, conserving computing resources.

Whalen thinks it's important to get more undergraduates involved in research labs, noting how students can benefit.

“We work closely with the professors and get help from other group members,” he said. “You can join a team even if you don’t have a specific project in mind. Working in professor Balachandran’s lab allows me to make the most of my time here at UVA.”

Whalen is thankful for the opportunity to see what goes on “behind the scenes” at a research university.

“It wasn’t until I got involved with professor Balachandran that I saw the web of professors and their students all working together toward a big goal like getting to Mars,” he said.

Whalen is open to multiple career paths but expects to go into industry where he can learn things on his own and gain real-world experience, with an eye toward returning to graduate school in the future.