Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Spinel research project earns national recognition for Browne 09

David Browne '09 will enter the Ph.D. program in materials science and engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara this fall.

It may not seem consequential at the time but a wise summer choice can make all the difference in launching a research career.

David Browne ’09, who recently won a major national research award, learned this lesson in the last two years of his Lehigh career.

It was the spring of 2007. Summer was approaching and Browne, a materials science and engineering major, was completing his sophomore year. A graduate student suggested that Browne check out Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a program funded by the National Science Foundation that pays students to do summer research internships at universities.

Browne found an opening with the University of New Mexico and spent the summer of 2007 studying germanium and its potential to improve the efficiency of multi-junction solar cells.

He returned to Lehigh that fall and asked Richard Vinci, associate professor of materials science and engineering, if he could do a research project at Lehigh.

Vinci assigned Browne to help him and Helen Chan, department chair of materials science and engineering department, investigate a new way of fabricating spinel, a transparent ceramic used in the windows of military vehicles and bank teller stations.

The spinel project gave Browne his first exposure to ceramic materials. He presented the results of his research in April 2008 at the annual David and Lorraine Freed Undergraduate Research Symposium held by Lehigh’s P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. Browne won second place, an award that carries prize money for conference travel.

“The Freed Symposium was very helpful not just because of the travel funding,” said Browne, “but also because it gave me the chance to speak before judges and other people. It was my first experience at public speaking and it was good preparation for the TMS presentation.”

The award widened Browne’s opportunities. He wrote a paper on the spinel project with Vinci, Chan and Hongwei Li, a former postdoctoral research scientist, which has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Materials Science. With help from John DuPont, professor of materials science and engineering, he landed a summer (2008) internship with NASA’s Langley Research Center, where he studied carbon nanotubes.

Using the prize money from the Freed Award, Browne traveled to San Francisco in February to compete in a poster contest at the 138th Annual Meeting of The Mineral, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS).

Contests were held in TMS’ five divisions: electronic, magnetic and photonic materials; extracting and processing; light metals; structural materials; and materials processing and manufacturing.

“A good opportunity for networking”

Fifty posters were presented in the five categories, half by undergraduate students, half by graduate students. Browne won first place in the undergraduate section of the materials processing and manufacturing category. His poster was titled “Sol Gel Synthesis and Conversion of Spinel Thin Films.”

“This was my first conference and my first trip to San Francisco,” said Browne, who is from Woodbridge, N.J. “It was a good opportunity for networking. I went to see the other presentations, met a lot of other students, and had a chance to interact with the judges. I went by myself, which was good because it brought me out of my comfort zone and forced me to talk to other people.”

When engineers fabricate spinel, says Browne, they polish it to remove scratches and make it perfectly transparent. Because of the hardness of the ceramic, this process is expensive and time-consuming.

The Lehigh group tried a different approach, depositing the sol gel and allowing it to solidify so that it filled in the cracks that mar transparency.

“Instead of removing material to get rid of cracks,” says Browne, “we added liquid and utilized surface forces in order to fill in cracks.”

The Lehigh group was especially concerned with the interface of the sol gel and the spinel.

“A mismatch between what is being deposited and what is already there,” says Browne, “will interrupt the optical properties. We want to make sure that the sol gel, when deposited, crystallizes in such a way that its grains take on the same orientation as the grains in the spinel substrate. Also, when the gel dries, it has to adhere to the substrate.”

Browne and his research group added surfactants to promote the adhesion of sol gel to substrate. To determine if adhesion was occurring, they used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

“We have had some success so far,” says Browne. “We have been able to get rid of some of the scratches. But other scratches are persisting. We are trying to find out why this is so.”

Next fall, Browne will enter the Ph.D. program in materials science and engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His plans are to do research in electronic materials.

Browne traces his interest in research back to his REU internship in New Mexico two summers ago. The variety of projects he has worked on since then has helped him chart his future path.

“It’s really important, if you want to choose the right graduate program, that you do a lot of research projects as an undergraduate in order to get the experience you’ll need,” says Browne.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Sunday, May 10, 2009

share this story: