Tag: Engineering

Southern Research Welcomes Dr. Mark Opeka to the Engineering Team

Southern Research is pleased to announce the hiring of Dr. Mark Opeka to our Engineering team at Southern Research as a Materials Engineering Fellow.

Dr. Mark Opeka
Dr. Mark Opeka, Materials Engineering Fellow

He previously served as a Subject Matter Expert for high temperature materials at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. In the mid-1980s, Dr. Opeka re-visited ultra-high-temperature ceramics (UHTCs) materials, that had been explored in the 1960s, to base the development of the propulsion components for a new Navy hypersonic scramjet-propelled missile, the Advanced Wide Area Missile (AWAM), supported by the Office of Naval Research (ONR).  His materials selection approach provided direction for the integration of UHTCs into then recently developed high temperature carbon-carbon (C-C) materials.  This activity was integral in bringing UHTCs back into play and led to the development of UHTC-coated C-C.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Opeka led materials selection analyses and advanced coatings materials fabrication activities to significantly increase the weapons-resistance capabilities of carbon-carbon composite space structures over state-of-the-art materials. Through the 1990s, Dr. Opeka led the ONR development of UHTCs tailored for missile solid-propellant propulsion components and then subsequently verified by successful ground testing.  In the early 2000s this expertise in solid propulsion materials selection and development resulted in his being supported by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and to lead propulsion UHTC and refractory metals materials maturation and property characterization efforts.  In addition, he was also supported by the Air Force (AF) to provide guidance for a new initiative in hypersonic materials research and development.  These activities led to formalizing and publishing a systematic materials selection approach for high temperature materials applications which broadly addressed (and continues to address) propulsion systems (solid, liquid, and other propellants) and hypersonic vehicle thermal protection systems.

Most recently, from 2000 to the present, his materials selection approach and knowledge of UHTCs and refractory metals has placed him as Subject Matter Expert for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) propulsion and hypersonic materials developments effort.  For the MDA and other DoD services he continues to provide focused direction on the highest performing materials, enabling development along the most rapid and cost-effective paths.

Michael Johns, Vice President of Engineering at Southern Research adds, “With all of this expertise in the field of high-temperature materials, we are glad to have Mark join our other engineers at Southern Research.  We are excited to have such an expert in their field help us provide unparalleled understanding of materials in extreme environments.”

Southern Research and the future of nuclear energy

Southern Research, through the ARPAe program, has been installing robotic systems in some of our labs. They are currently being used for our research into autonomous maintenance of nuclear energy systems. The research with these robots is being done to support a more sustainable and affordable future for nuclear reactors and nuclear power.

The future of nuclear energy can be found in molten salt reactors (MSRs), as they tend to be safer and more efficient than the larger reactors. They operate largely in the same way as the large reactors, but they operate at high temperatures with a liquid nuclear fuel that allows for the reactor to self-regulate if it ever reaches a critical state. This self-regulation raises a problem however, what happens when the reactors need to be maintained? This is where Southern Research steps in with robotics to run autonomous maintenance.

We will be training robots, but there are currently no MSRs built and so the barrier comes with them not being able to train in the real world. With our program partners, Southern Research have built virtual worlds, where we’ll be able to run simulations and train them to accomplish various maintenance tasks so that they can be operated in the real world when MSRs are built. The training will start out generalized with our robot, FANUC, and we have partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who also has a robot. With this generalized training, it is our hope that we can expand the machine learning training to other tasks that robotics could be used for like exploration in more extreme environments.


Southern Research Testing New Cost-Effective Methods for System Performance in Extreme Cold Conditions

When the Southern Research Engineering Division talks about testing materials in extreme environments, it usually is referring to measuring properties at very high temperatures up to 5500 °F.  However,  going hot isn’t the only extreme environment that modern materials experience.  Space exploration often results in the need for systems that perform at incredibly cold temperatures.  Applications include things like fuel tanks for propulsion systems that hold liquid oxygen at -423 °F and space telescopes that orbit far from the earth where they are shaded from the sun and can reach temperatures of -442 °F.

Mechanical testing at very low temperatures, or cryogenic temperatures, has historically been done by cooling materials using liquid cryogens such as liquid nitrogen (LN2) and liquid helium (LHe).  That process involves getting liquid cryogens in big vacuum flasks and spraying the cryogen on the test setup.  A single experiment can take a lot of cryogen to cool the material.  LN2 is inexpensive and readily available.  It can cool down to -320 °F and for tests at and above that temperature, cooling with LN2 remains a good choice.  However, for temperature below -320 °F, LHe is required.  There is a limited world-wide supply of LHe and in recent years it has quadrupled in price and become difficult to source.  A single mechanical test at -423 °F can take as much as two or three thousand dollars’ worth of LHe.  The combination of cost and availability of LHe has made testing below -320 °F difficult and expensive.

The difficulties in testing with LHe has led Southern Research to conduct an Internal Research and Development (IR&D) project to consider alternatives to using LHe liquid cryogen to conduct super-cold material tests.  The approach that has been developed uses a unique device known as a cryo-cooler.  A cryo-cooler is a mechanical compressor device that can cool the tip of a cold head down to -453 °F.  They have become much more common in recent years since they are used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI units at almost every hospital.  At -453 °F, the cryo-cooler doesn’t have much cooling capacity, meaning that it cannot overcome much heat load.  Thus, the challenge to use a cryo-cooler to conduct tests at extremely cold temperatures is to design a system that thermally attaches the cold head to the material while minimizing the heat conducted into the test setup.

To reduce the heat load from convection, the test must be conducted in a vacuum.  Loads that are applied to the material must be through fixtures made of extremely low thermal conductivity material so as not to conduct heat from outside the vacuum chamber.  Finally, the test setup must be wrapped in multiple layer insulation (MLI) to prevent heating the material by radiation from the surroundings.  MLI is typically made of aluminum or silver coated thin film to reflect radiant energy.  Those that have seen or remember the lunar Landing Module from the Apollo missions will recall that it was wrapped in MLI, in that case to keep the cold of the Moon away from the astronauts. Most people are familiar with MLI type aluminized film from its use in Pop-Tart wrappers!

Southern Research has conducted demonstration tests that have shown that the cryo-cooler is capable of cooling materials down to -423 °F.  Southern Research is now focused on developing best practice for thermal strapping, MLI wrapping, and load fixture design.  Southern Research is actively proposing work using the cryo-cooler approach at better cost and schedule assurance to our clients.

Southern Research’s Johns tapped for Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame

Southern Research Vice President of Engineering Michael D. Johns has been inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in recognition of his contributions to game-changing technologies in support of NASA, the Department of Defense and others.

Since joining Birmingham-based Southern Research in 1997, Johns has established a reputation as an expert on advanced composite materials, played an important role in the development of strategic defense technologies, and expanded the scope of the organization’s engineering activities.

Those who have worked with Johns say he has made lasting impacts on the engineering field in Alabama.

“Johns represents the best of what it means to be an engineer — his technical expertise is deep, his leadership has been proven time and time again, and his actions to help others make him someone worthy of emulation,” said C. Stephen Cornelius, senior vice president at Kord Technologies Inc. in Huntsville.

Southern Research
Nicole Faulk, chair of the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame Board of Directors, presents Southern Research’s Mike Johns with a plaque at an induction ceremony, Feb. 22, 2020. (Image: Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame/Matthew Wood)

Robert M. Lightfoot Jr., vice president for strategy and business development at Lockheed Martin Space, worked with Johns while at NASA and considered him an ideal industry partner.

“His engineering depth made him a strong voice when advocating for key technologies this nation needed to develop,” Lightfoot said. “Mike demonstrates an innate ability to effectively communicate the value of engineering technology and research at all levels.”

Johns has served as a member of the NASA Advisory Council Technology, Innovation & Engineering Committee since 2014, supporting the advisory needs of the NASA administrator, the Office of the Chief Technologist, and NASA Mission Directorates.

He joins Coultas “Colt” Pears, an innovator who led the development of Southern Research’s high-temperature materials laboratory, in the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame. The lab, renamed for Pears, and Southern Research itself are also recognized in the Hall of Fame.

In 2017, Southern Research’s Stuart Starrett, who is credited with making significant contributions to the development of reentry nosetips for U.S. ballistic missile systems, was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.

Starrett, who remains a consultant, said the Engineering division, under Johns’ leadership, continues to “celebrate technological successes in landmark contributions to our nation’s defense” while also expanding in other areas.

Johns’ induction into Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame took place Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Bryant Conference Center at The University of Alabama.

The Hall of Fame was founded in 1987 to celebrate the outstanding accomplishments and contributions of individuals, projects, and corporations/institutions that have brought and continue to bring significant recognition to the State of Alabama.


Johns has served as vice president of Southern Research’s Engineering division since 2004. Under his leadership, the unit has grown in technical fields including advanced materials, aerospace engineering, composite structures manufacturing, automotive technology development, nuclear energy technologies, airborne sensor systems, hypersonics and additive manufacturing.

Southern Research
Mike Johns, vice president of Engineering at Southern Research, speaks during an induction ceremony for the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame, Feb. 22, 2020. (Image: Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame/Matthew Wood)

Steve Cook, executive vice president at Huntsville-based Dynetics, said he has gotten to know Johns through work on the U.S. Navy’s hypersonic glide body program.

“Mike’s engineering skills and leadership approach have already enabled extensive technological innovation in hypersonic glide body technologies, specifically reentry thermal protection systems,” Cook said. “His involvement will undoubtedly continue to shape the hypersonics renaissance in the country, helping the United States to once again become a world leader in advanced hypersonic flight systems.”

At Southern Research, Johns has directed and managed high-profile research and commercial projects in areas such as solar energy, municipal solid waste to energy conversion, water research, automotive engineering, space exploration  and  hypersonics.

During his tenure at Southern Research, Johns also directed the organization’s Transportation Systems division and served as department head of the Materials Characterization Group. In this latter role, he was responsible for materials research programs for NASA and the Department of Defense, as well as emerging areas of automotive research in the Southeast.

He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from The University of Alabama and an MBA from UA’s Manderson Graduate School of Business. He is of the current chair of the University of Alabama’s College of Engineering Leadership Board and the member of the engineering leadership board at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, among many other departmental advisory boards across the state.



Southern Research to develop smart robots for next-gen nuclear reactors under DOE grant

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a team led by Southern Research a $2.8 million grant to develop smart maintenance robots that will work autonomously in the challenging conditions inside next-generation nuclear reactors.

The team working on the project, funded by DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to train the robots to complete maintenance tasks at a future molten salt reactor (MSR) large component test facility.

Autonomous maintenance is seen as an enabling capability to making MSR technology economically viable as a safe, carbon-free energy source, according to Robert Amaro, Ph.D., a mechanical engineer and advanced manufacturing specialist at Southern Research’s Engineering division.

Southern Research nuclear energy
Robert Amaro of Southern Research will lead a project to develop autonomous robots for next-generation nuclear reactors.

“The MSR technology is very promising because of its inherent safety, but the high-temperature, high-radiation environment makes it necessary to remotely maintain the reactor. Training robots to perform maintenance tasks is a key capability in the development of these reactors,” Amaro said.

As the project’s program manager, Amaro will prepare the robots for their mission, but what is unusual about this project is that the robots will be trained in a virtual environment, using machine learning to execute a range of routine maintenance tasks. The operator would provide high-level guidance to the smart robots but would not have to direct each specific task they perform in the MSR, Amaro said.

The success of this project promises to significantly advance future nuclear power generation.

On the project, Southern Research has partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the creator of the original MSR technology; PaR Systems, a leading manufacturer of automation and robotic technology used in nuclear facilities; Intuitive Research and Technology Corp., which specializes in 3-D virtual training environments; DEFT Dynamics, an innovative small business developing real time feedback for robots and manipulators; and Southern Company, a leading energy company based in Atlanta.

The project supports a proposed concept being explored by Southern Company Research and Development (R&D) to develop a molten salt large component test facility in conjunction with its efforts to advance Generation IV nuclear energy systems. Southern Company and TerraPower, a nuclear startup founded by Bill Gates, received DOE funding in 2016, as part of an ongoing effort to develop a Molten Chloride Fast Reactor that uses liquid salts as both a coolant and fuel.

Southern Company will assist the Southern Research team by providing 3-D modeling of the future test facility to help the robot training efforts. It will also provide oversight to ensure the technology developed by Southern Research is applicable to MSR technology.

“Southern Research has put together a strong technical team for this project, and this is a great opportunity for the organization to become part of a large, collaborative, industry-leading effort to develop next-generation nuclear power for the clean, safe, reliable and affordable generation of electricity,” said Nick Irvin, Southern Company director of research strategy, next-generation nuclear and crosscutting R&D.

Though MSR technology has never been commercialized, it was first developed as an experiment at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. Now, almost 60 years later, the technology is seen by many as an energy system for the future.

Interest has been rekindled in MSR technology because it offers a zero-carbon energy resource that operates at high temperatures and low pressure using a nonreactive coolant. And these reactors are capable of being designed and scaled for both small- and large-scale deployments.


For Birmingham-based Southern Research, the project is groundbreaking in a number of ways, said Corey Tyree, Ph.D., senior director of Southern Research’s Energy and Environment division. It’s the organization’s first large-scale nuclear project and the first time it’s been funded by ARPA-E, a government agency that typically funds higher-risk projects that have a greater impact and a higher reward in the energy sector.

For Southern Research, it also represents the first major collaboration between its Engineering and Energy & Environment divisions on a project of this magnitude, he added.

“This is an exciting project because it moves us into some new directions,” Tyree said. “The work leverages our knowledge base in materials, energy and environment, while also moving us into new technical areas like automation, robotics and virtual environment training by partnering with other world leaders in these areas.”

Both Amaro and Tyree agree that the development of this autonomous robot technology can better position Southern Research for new industrial partnerships looking for applications in advanced manufacturing as well as applications supporting the nation’s space program, where a similar skill set may be required to perform complex tasks in hostile environments.


Southern Research’s AIRS technology records spacecraft’s return for NASA

Southern Research’s unique high-altitude HD video recording system provided NASA with dramatic close-up images of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft as it descended through Earth’s atmosphere for a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean in March.

The Airborne Imaging and Reconnaissance System, or AIRS, mounted on a NASA WB-57F research aircraft flying at 18,000 feet, recorded the unmanned spacecraft on its March 8 return after a critical test mission to the International Space Station.

Tony Casey, engineering project leader for Southern Research, said the AIRS cameras filmed Crew Dragon’s descent for 12 minutes, capturing key moments such as when its drogue parachutes opened to slow the craft after reentry.

In addition, images recorded by the system’s infrared camera will allow NASA to estimate temperatures of various parts of the vehicle, he said.

“The high-definition video and infrared images captured by the AIRS platform on the WB-57 will help fill in the overall picture of how the spacecraft performed on a mission that could shape the future of the American space program,” said Casey, who is based in Houston, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Southern Research
Southern Research’s AIRS technology aboard a NASA WB-57 research plane captured the parachutes opening to slow the descent of the SpaceX Crew Dragon at the end of its mission to the International Space Station.

Since the AIRS technology debuted in 2005, it has played an important role in many missions for NASA and other government agencies, said Michael D. Johns, vice president of the Engineering Division at Southern Research.

“When it comes to the issues of space flight, there is no margin for error,” Johns said. “Over the years, our team working on the AIRS technology has responded to each new challenge with innovative solutions that have helped advance the WB-57 program.

“This mission for NASA is another illustration of the versatility and value of the AIRS platform in support of a great partner,” he added.


Last month’s mission, known as Demonstration Mission-1, or DM-1, was seen as a significant step for SpaceX, the private space flight company, and NASA. The agency wants to launch its astronauts to the orbital laboratory from the U.S. aboard an American-built spacecraft — something it has not been able to do since retiring the Space Shuttle eight years ago.

The first-of-its-kind mission was designed to test Crew Dragon’s equipment, including its docking gear, as well as its systems for life support and re-entry, in an overall demonstration of its capabilities.

DM-1 began March 2, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft docked autonomously with the orbital laboratory on March 3. Throughout the flight, it carried a sensor-filled mannequin named Ripley to provide data about conditions inside the cabin.

Following Crew Dragon’s splashdown off the coast of Florida, scientists from NASA and SpaceX will now review the systems and flight data, including the AIRS recordings, to prepare for crewed flight.

Before that can happen, there will be an inflight abort test – and NASA’s WB-57 aircraft equipped with Southern Research’s AIRS turrets will again play a role in recording the critical moments in HD video for analysis.

Southern Research AIRS
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule traveled to the International Space Station on a demonstration mission. (Image: NASA)

The in-flight abort test will demonstrate the ability of Crew Dragon to safely deliver astronauts back on Earth in case of a problem after lift-off, Casey said.

After that, the AIRS cameras will capture images of Crew Dragon’s DM-2 mission, which will carry two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The milestone mission is targeted to take place this summer.

“We consider it an honor to support NASA and advance its core mission of exploration and discovery because that is exactly what Southern Research is all about,” Casey said.


Southern Research provides ongoing support of the AIRS platform on the WB-57F research planes based at Johnson Space Center under a contract with NASA that stretches back to 2011.

Southern Research’s engineers began working on the AIRS technology in 2003 in an effort to develop a high definition video imaging system capable of monitoring the NASA STS-114 Return to Flight shuttle launch following the Columbia accident.

Since the AIRS-equipped WB-57s were first used to provide full motion video of that mission in 2005, they have since monitored numerous launches and re-entries for government agencies such as NASA, as well as commercial launches.

From a height of 50,000 feet, the AIRS technology aboard a pair of NASA WB-57s captured spectacular visible light and infrared images of the total solar eclipse over the U.S. in August 2017.

Don Darrow, a Southern Research communications engineer who operated AIRS in one of those planes that day, was on the support team for the DM-1 mission.

Southern Research works to spur medical device development in Birmingham

Southern Research’s Stacey Kelpke, Ph.D., believes Birmingham is well equipped to become the next hub for the development of innovative medical devices, thanks to the city’s rich manufacturing heritage and its wide-ranging healthcare expertise,

As director of Southern Research’s Medical Technology program, Kelpke is leading an initiative that aims to harness the broad-based resources already present in Birmingham and in Alabama to make that a reality.

“Our goal is to help establish the Birmingham area as a center for medical device business formation by working in a collaborative fashion to capitalize on the region’s dynamic healthcare sector and its deep roots in manufacturing,” Kelpke said. “It seems natural to fuse those two elements together, combining a new strength with a historic one.”

Southern Research medical devices
Stacey Kelpke directs Southern Research’s Medical Technology program. She wants to see Birmingham become a hub for medical device development.

Kelpke plans to couple Southern Research’s extensive capabilities in fields such as drug discovery and engineering with the Birmingham area’s increasingly vibrant start-up ecosystem to accelerate the development of medical device technologies.

Initial steps in the initiative include:

  • Southern Research is hosting a MedTech Symposium on Feb. 28 that will bring innovators, policymakers and experts from around the nation to Birmingham to discuss medical device development.
  • Kelpke has formed an Advisory Board comprised of industry leaders and healthcare executives to generate ideas and lend expertise on how to advance the initiative.
  • Southern Research is seeking to connect medical device startups and entrepreneurs in Alabama with sources of possible funding that can spur the formation of new enterprises and accelerate the growth of fledgling businesses.
  • Kelpke has launched efforts to foster community engagement and form new partnerships that can boost medical device development by identifying and promoting resources.

“Southern Research has been translating ideas into innovations with commercial potential for over a half a century in Birmingham,” said Josh Carpenter, director of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for the City of Birmingham.

“With their leadership, expertise, and convening power, Birmingham can sharpen its focus on medical device research and development, enhancing the city’s collective market presence.”


While Kelpke has been working behind the scenes on the initiative for several months, the MedTech Symposium being held this month at Southern Research will serve as its community debut.

Scheduled speakers include Craig Buerstatte, acting director for the U.S Commerce Department’s Office for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Tiffany Wilson, CEO of the Global Center for Medical Innovation; and Chris West, president of the Zeroto510, a Memphis, Tennessee-based accelerator that focuses on medical device startups.

Alabama Department of Commerce
Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, will participate in a Southern Research symposium on medical devices.

In addition, Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, is scheduled to speak on a panel discussion at the event. Canfield’s department administers the Alabama Innovation Fund, which has provided funding for Southern Research’s efforts in medical device development.

“The symposium gives us a chance to educate the community about the potential of medical device development and to bring in resources that can spark conversations and help us build an environment in Birmingham for innovators in this field,” Kelpke said.

For more information on the seminar or to register, click here.


Southern Research has worked to promote medical device development since 2014 and has provided internal seed funding for more than a dozen medical technology projects in recent years.

Going forward, Southern Research is looking at its own expertise to develop medical technologies and forge collaborations with academic and industrial partners. The organization’s fields of expertise include system designs, imaging, sensors, material testing and additive manufacturing, as well as drug discovery.

Blair King, manager of economic development and existing industry for Alabama Power and a member of the Southern Research Medical Technology advisory board, said Birmingham possesses all the resources needed to spur the development of medical devices.

“With both world-class health care and scientific research taking place in Birmingham, there’s the realistic potential for the development and commercialization of new medical devices and technologies, along with the formation of new jobs,” King said. “Thanks to its multifaceted capabilities and its collaborative skills, Southern Research can work in concert with other organizations to shape an environment where innovation can take place.”

Southern Research expanding additive manufacturing capabilities with key hire

Southern Research announced today that Robert Amaro, a mechanical engineer with expertise in metallurgy and solid modeling, will spearhead an expansion of the organization’s activities in additive manufacturing, a technology revolutionizing how complex aerospace parts and other industrial components are made.

Amaro, Ph.D., joins Birmingham-based Southern Research from The University of Alabama, where he conducted federally funded research on how metals behave in environments that contribute to structural problems such as fatigue, fracture and large-scale deformation.

In his new role as manager of Advanced Materials Technologies, Amaro will help companies in aerospace, energy and other industries better understand the physical properties and performance capabilities of parts produced using additive technologies.

Jim Tucker, director of Materials Research for Southern Research’s Engineering division, said expanding the advanced materials group’s expertise in additive manufacturing will complement its longstanding focus on composites.

Southern Research additive manufacturing
Robert Amaro joins Southern Research to expand the organization’s capabilities in additive manufacturing.

For decades, Southern Research has been considered a world leader in the high-temperature evaluation of composite materials used in heat shields and other components in NASA spacecraft and ballistic missiles.

“Just as composites did, additive manufacturing is changing the whole concept of how high-performance parts are designed and manufactured,” Tucker said. “Southern Research intends to stay at the center of materials testing for a range for industries, and Robert will help position us for the next-generation of advanced materials.”


Additive manufacturing – sometimes called 3-D printing – involves techniques that create three-dimensional objects by depositing one superfine layer of material over another. The process is controlled by computer-aided design (CAD) software and can involve laser or electron beams.

Manufacturers are embracing additive technologies because they can rapidly produce intricate parts that are lighter and stronger than ones fabricated using conventional means such as machining.

Because the techniques are so new, however, there can be questions about the structural integrity of components built with additive technologies that require extensive post-build testing.

Amaro said his primary focus will be on coupling Southern Research’s expertise in non-destructive evaluation with process parameter optimization techniques to create in-situ additive manufacturing build process parameter optimization routines.  The data collected as part of the closed-loop AM build control routine will then be used to create a digital twin of the AM build.

Ultimately, the AM build data collected for process parameter feedback, coupled with the AM component digital twin, will aid companies and organizations using additive technologies to ensure consistent component builds and high-precision industrial production while simultaneously minimizing and quantifying build defects.

“Basically, we will offer a component build-to-solid model infrastructure that closes the gap between what it is that is being built through additive manufacturing and what is being put into service,” Amaro said. “If we can decrease the amount of time from part inception to the insertion of that part into service, then we have been successful.”

Southern Research additive manufacturing
Southern Research aims to help manufacturers better understand the physical properties and performance capabilities of the parts they make using additive manufacturing technologies.

As with composites, the Southern Research team will be able to consult with both manufacturers using additive techniques and end-users of AM-produced parts on the structural integrity and performance characteristics of materials.


Amaro has served as principal investigator for research projects supporting NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.

His research for NASA focused on modeling friction stir welding processes to achieve optimal welds, while he examined hydrogen-assisted fatigue and failure in pipeline steels and pressure vessels for NIST.

Before arriving in The University of Alabama, Amaro worked in the Colorado School of Mines’ Mechanical Engineering Department and in the Materials Reliability of NIST’s Structural Materials Group. He is the former co-owner of design-build engineering firm and managed projects to construct themed attractions in Tokyo and Berlin.

Amaro holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field.



Southern Research tests parts 3-D printed in space for NASA

Could 3-D printers transform the International Space Station into a manufacturing hub and one day function as the heart of an on-demand machine shop in space that enables NASA to mount crewed missions deep into the solar system?

Engineers at Southern Research are helping NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center explore the capabilities of additive manufacturing technologies that have major logistics implications for the nation’s ambitious future space missions.

“When NASA sends a crew to Mars, there can’t be a resupply mission. There is just no way to send them replacement parts if equipment breaks or a part fails in deep space,” said Madison Parks, an advanced mechanical engineer in Southern Research’s Engineering division.

“On a mission to Mars, a 3-D printer will have to go with the crew. A part failing in orbit can be replaced after a resupply mission, but a resupply mission to a craft on the way to Mars would be too costly and may result in a loss of the mission. The crew will need to be entirely self-sufficient,” he added.

NASA 3-D printing
Madison Parks, an advanced mechanical engineer at Southern Research, is working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on a project to test objects 3-D printed in space.

Parks is working with Marshall’s engineers to come up with an answer to a critical question facing NASA’s plans for space-borne three-dimensional printing: Are parts manufactured in zero-gravity going to behave just like those produced on Earth-bound 3-D printers?

The ISS is already equipped with a 3-D printer. In 2014, California-based Made in Space sent a polymer printer to the space station, followed two years later by a more advanced device. It’s been used to print plastic tools used around the station, along with other non mission-critical items.

To help NASA understand the properties of materials printed in an in-space 3-D polymer printer, Parks and his team are testing specimens of materials printed in space and comparing them to similar specimens produced on Earth.

Along with tension and compression tests on these materials, Southern Research will be performing digital image correlation (DIC). DIC is a non-contact optical method that employs tracking and image registration techniques for accurate 3-D measurements of changes on the surface during a mechanical or thermal loading.

Measuring full-field displacements and strains during the mechanical tests will help engineers understand the material behavior and overall effect of print passes and how they relate to zero-gravity 3-D printing versus Earth 3-D printing.

“For safety reasons, NASA has to understand the materials before they use them,” Parks said. “You have to understand where and how these parts, which are manufactured in space, can be used. Doing otherwise could lead to parts and systems failing prematurely.”

Southern Research’s Engineering division, which specializes in analyzing how materials perform in extreme environments, has collaborated with NASA for decades.

Southern Research
Astronaut Butch Wilmore shows off a plastic tool made using a 3-D printer installed on the International Space Station in 2014. (Image: NASA)

Its engineers analyzed the thermal and mechanical properties of potential heat shield materials for the Apollo program and provided crucial support for the Space Shuttle, particularly in the “Return to Flight” missions after the Columbia accident.

Today, Southern Research is involved in the Space Launch System, or SLS, the massive rocket NASA is developing for planned Mars missions.

For NASA, three-dimensional printing offers a fast and inexpensive way to manufacture parts on a spacecraft, exactly when they’re needed. That’s a huge benefit to long-term missions and has the potential to fundamentally change how NASA plans logistics operations for human spaceflight.

“Right now, there are thousands of parts for the International Space Station sitting in NASA storage, and most of them will never be used,” Parks said. “But they have to have all these parts on hand to launch to the ISS in case something breaks or fails.”

“What Southern Research and NASA are working together on is a foundational effort with the goal of the ISS crew being able to print the parts they need as they need them, which will help the astronauts accomplish their missions,” he added.

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UAB and Southern Research launch collaborative pilot projects

A satellite or a spacecraft that better resists micro-meteor strikes. A new catalyst that lowers the cost of a major petroleum feedstock for plastics and slashes greenhouse gas emissions.

These are possible payoffs from an inaugural collaboration between Southern Research and the University of Alabama at Birmingham to launch two seed-funded projects by engineers and physicists from these Birmingham research powerhouses.

The immediate goal is synergy. This is seen especially in one of the pilots — a study of catalysts used in petroleum cracking.

A catalyst is a substance that reduces the amount of energy needed to drive a chemical reaction, and the catalyst does this without its being consumed.

At SR, Amit Goyal, Ph.D., leads a team that develops catalysts to convert biomass or natural gas to fuels or create chemical products derived from petroleum. Goyal says he developed a great interest in the capabilities of UAB’s Cheng-Chien Chen, Ph.D., and Kannatassen “Krishen” Appavoo, Ph.D., to aid his search for better catalysts, particularly for the conversion of ethane to ethylene, a feedstock for plastics and other chemical products.

L to R: Amit Goyal, Cheng-Chien Chen, Krishen Appavoo

“Conventional ethylene production is very energy-intensive, consuming 1 percent of the world’s annual energy production,” Goyal said. “If a mild process can be developed that utilizes abundant low-grade carbon dioxide from different combustion processes and cheaply available lower alkanes derived from shale gas — at economically competitive rates — a major impact on reduction of carbon dioxide can be made.”

Goyal’s group is able to synthesize and characterize a variety of mixed-metal oxide compounds as potential catalysts. Chen will use quantum mechanical modeling and UAB’s supercomputer to understand the catalytic reaction mechanisms at a molecular level. Appavoo will use ultrafast lasers to look at short-lived intermediate chemical species and reactions that take place on the catalyst surface.

“In order to dig deeper for industrially relevant, promising catalyst systems, it makes a lot of sense to collaborate and understand fundamental mechanisms that will further improve the catalyst systems, or permit use of similar systems for different chemistries,” Goyal said. “This project is a good mix of physics, chemistry and computational expertise.”

Goyal works in Durham, North Carolina, as director of the Southern Research Sustainable Chemistry and Catalysis group at SR’s Advanced Energy and Transportation Technologies facility. Also in the pilot is Jadid Samad, an SR senior chemical engineer and technical lead. At UAB, Chen and Appavoo are assistant professors in the Department of Physics, UAB College of Arts and Sciences. Their backgrounds include research at four U.S. national laboratories — Chen at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Appavoo at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

Protecting spacecraft
The second pilot study, led by Thomas Attard, Ph.D., associate professor, UAB School of Engineering, and Jacques Cuneo, a manager in the SR Materials Technology Group, tackles a different intriguing problem — how to make much-needed components for spacecraft that are both heat-resistant and able to resist high-speed impacts from micro-meteors or space junk.

The number of orbiting fragments large enough to destroy a spacecraft has more than doubled in the past 25 years to an estimated 150 million tiny harmful objects, traveling at very high speeds.
NASA is actively tracking more than 500,000 pieces of debris, ranging in size from a tennis ball to a tiny marble, and if any of those makes a hit, it can disintegrate into tiny, untrackable particles that can still punch holes 100 times the particle’s diameter. Orbitable space is approaching “collision chaos,” Attard said.

“Many fiber-reinforced polymers — including carbon-fiber composites — have high strength and stiffness, good chemical and heat resistance, and low weight and may present great alternatives to many everyday problems,” Attard said. “However, a major drawback is brittleness and insufficient toughness and damping, and in large-impact environments, this can lead to unexpected and catastrophic failure.”

With the aid of nano-scale experimental equipment and super-computing facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, Attard is developing “tunable” energy-dissipating materials, by altering experimental chemical reactions at the nano-scale.

By tunable, he means the ability to change reaction rates and also reverse reactions through dissociativity between a slow-curing epoxy and either a pre-polymerized polyurea or a hindered-urea bond, i.e., un-polymerized polyurea. He calls the outcome a “Dynamic Covalent Interface,” or DCI, that will contain newly created and designable chemical bonds that are self-healing under extreme impact. The concept of creating a new “DCI skin panel” is to lessen the risk of sudden breakage of fiber-reinforced polymers by creating better shock dynamics, while still maintaining temperature resistance in satellites and various spacecraft structure components.

“Dr. Attard’s team at UAB will be doing all the up-front work formulating the polymer chemistry and getting it into a useful form,” Cuneo said. “The team at SR will do downstream work to test the material’s thermal and mechanical properties and work with potential vendors to assess its potential for coatings or as a matrix material for composites.”

Jacques Cuneo (L) and Thomas Attard (R)

The UAB/SR collaboration began last December with a research retreat for 60 scientists and engineers from UAB and SR, as Chris Brown, Ph.D., UAB vice president for Research, and Art Tipton, Ph.D., SR president and chief executive officer, were seeking ways to create more collaborations between the two institutions.

“It was a wonderful idea-exchange and incubation session,” Goyal said. “It was fascinating for me to learn about the computational modeling tools of Professor Chen and the ultrafast in-situ characterization capabilities of Professor Appavoo.”

At the retreat, Brown and Tipton announced they would jointly fund several new initiatives, and the two winning proposals were chosen this summer.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to capitalize on the scientific and engineering strengths of our two organizations — literally across the street from each other,” Brown said. “We anticipate that these two pilot projects will lead to more collaboration in the future.”

“Southern Research and UAB maintain many positive collaborations, particularly in the life sciences,” Tipton said, “and this pilot study program has already proved to be a great way to catalyze more innovations and collaborations in a broader range of areas between the two organizations. I am thrilled with the range of ideas proposed and look forward to this research’s investment providing returns.”

In 2019, at the end of one year, the two pilot studies will report on those returns, as measured by:
• Applications for external funding
• Intellectual property
• Publications in high-impact journals
• Commercial opportunities

The one-year pilots, each funded with $30,000, are jointly supported by the UAB Vice President for Research, UAB College of Arts and Sciences, UAB School of Engineering, and Southern Research.

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