Foundation Emphasizes Both Science and Student Training

When first embarking on his graduate studies at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2013, Wade Jensen had no idea what materials science was – nor that it would become his career after he earned his Ph.D. in 2018. Thanks to a grant from the II-VI Foundation, however, he found his calling.

“When I came into the materials science world, I didn’t know anything about it,” Jensen said. “I’ll always be thankful to the II-VI Foundation for funding my research. Because of it, I learned how to design a material to have specific properties, which is what I do all day in my current position. The project helped me grow my career and find a niche for myself that I really enjoy.”

Most people do not give this much thought, but the vast majority of materials used in the world’s many objects and structures have been engineered with certain properties to make the materials effective for their intended purposes. Examples are hard plastics or bendable rubber. Materials scientists and engineers like Jensen work to understand how the arrangement of the materials’ structures, down to their atoms and molecules, translates into materials with properties that can benefit society.

Jensen, who now works for Deringer-Ney as a Senior Research Metallurgist, was part of a research team led by Jerrold A. Floro, professor and associate chair for research in the UVA Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Floro also served as Jensen’s advisor, and the two worked on a project called Hierarchical Control of Eco-Friendly Fe-Si Based Alloys for Thermoelectric Applications, which sought to produce and refine metals and alloys to create an efficient and environmentally friendly thermoelectric material, which refers to a material that harnesses waste heat energy and transforms it into electrical energy.

“About 70% of all energy produced is rejected into the environment as waste heat,” Jensen said. “If you could collect even 10% of that, you could heat an enormous number of homes or improve the efficiency of cars. That’s especially important nowadays, given the energy crisis. We were looking to make a thermoelectric material, that, when you apply a thermal gradient, produces an electrical current.

“The system we produced with a combination of iron, silicon and germanium, and while it wasn’t the most efficient, is incredibly commercial. The elements are everywhere and are nontoxic, so our system is fairly easy to produce. And using different processing techniques to design a hierarchical structure, from the atomic scale up to the larger mesoscale, was our big contribution to the field.”

This critical research was supported by a grant from the II-VI Foundation, which has funded UVA Engineering graduate research and education since 2012. The foundation’s mission is “to encourage and enable students to pursue a career in engineering, science, and mathematics while maintaining a standard of excellence in that pursuit.” The II-VI Foundation is a private, charitable foundation established in 2007 by Carl J. Johnson and his wife Margot. Dr. Johnson also co-founded the publicly traded II-VI Incorporated, which manufactures engineered materials and optoelectrical components.

Floro said the II-VI Foundation is one of relatively few private philanthropic funders that targets its funding toward supporting graduate students’ research and launching careers in the STEM fields.

“The Foundation wants the majority of the budget to go to students,” Floro said. “They’re very much about training the next generation. Many other funded projects in materials science focus primarily on advancing the science. But the II-VI Foundation wants to support the science and the training.”

As exhibited during a June 21 virtual mini-conference UVA Engineering hosted for II-VI foundation-funded researchers, the strategy to support both the science and the training is paying dividends. The conference featured high-caliber research from UVA Engineering, Mississippi State University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago.

Floro and UVA materials science and engineering assistant professor Ji Ma led the conference, titled Forming Novel Material Structures by Additive Manufacturing Processes. UVA Ph.D. students Haobo Wang, Prosenjit Biswas and Connor Headley joined Floro and Ma.

The UVA team presented their research funded by the II-VI Foundation called Additive Manufacturing of Thermally Stable Freeform Optical Reflectors through Engineered Composites. Their research focuses on the burgeoning field of additive manufacturing, which is a process of creating objects with highly specific shapes layer by layer, usually through 3D printing, using materials with specific properties and purposes.

“Additive manufacturing is being investigated for making almost anything, especially since everyone can now have a 3D printer,” Floro said. “It’s huge in industries that need to create parts with very complicated shapes, like nozzles or fuel injectors in the aerospace industry. With additives, the components can all be turned into a single piece, so you can simplify the manufacturing and assembly process and reduce the number of parts you need.”

Ma, who specializes in additive manufacturing, noted that the UVA group’s research has broad implications across many industries that need very specific, intricately designed materials made into individualized shapes with highly precise properties.

“There is a push in the biomedical field toward implants customized for individual patients,” Ma said. “Implants have a very complicated geometry. For instance, a plate needs to fit exactly into a patient’s forearm or knee, but it cannot be mass produced because everyone is different. That’s where additive manufacturing comes in.”

“UVA’s team brings the benefit of materials science to additive manufacturing,” Floro said. “It’s not just that we can make a shape out of a material, but within the material, at the atomic level, we can control how the atoms are arranged. From building materials to bioimplants to even dentures – the possibilities are endless.”

The UVA team presented its important research to more than 70 attendees of the II-VI conference, including members of II-VI Foundation Board and staff members of II-VI Inc. based in the United States and abroad. The conference is an annual event for II-VI Foundation partner schools to showcase new research insights and enable the exchange of ideas – and highlight students’ work and discoveries.

“The Foundation is building bridges between different groups,” Floro said. “Everyone brings different skills to the table. A big part of this is students building their networks as they go into the world as Ph.D. researchers. They’ve met each other and learned about their different capabilities. Networking is everything these days, and that is a benefit of the conference.”

“We strive to create an environment during the conference that gives the students an opportunity to discuss their results with fellow researchers from both industry and academia,” Thomas Anderson, Ph.D., technical consultant to the II-VI Foundation, said. “We hope that relationships are formed that will continue throughout their education.”

Since 2012, Floro has received funding from the II-VI Foundation for three projects that have resulted in new discoveries and new inquiries in the field of material science – and in launching scientific careers. This kind of philanthropic support is critical, especially for students who are not yet sure where their passions lie.

Having once been such a student, Jensen advises aspiring researchers to look for various research opportunities outside their current paths.

“Explore the world a little bit,” Jensen says. “I started in physics because I loved math. I didn’t know that materials science was something I’d fall in love with. Find that thing that ignites your soul, and then go with it.”

Ji Ma Lab Photo

Ji Ma, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Virginia, left, specializes in additive manufacturing and recently helped lead a virtual conference for II-VI Foundation-funded researchers.