Photo: Penn State

A research team at Penn State aims to develop ultrahigh temperature materials for gas turbine use in the aviation and power generation industries, through computational design, advanced manufacturing techniques and systematic characterization.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) recently awarded a team of Penn State materials scientists a $1.2 million grant for the design and manufacturing of ultrahigh-temperature refractory alloys. HappyValley Industry spoke to research team leader Dr. Zi-Kui Liu, a professor of materials science and engineering, to learn more about his research and how it impacts Industry 4.0.

HappyValley Industry: What is your research topic and why is it important on a global scale?

Dr. Zi-Kui Liu: My research topic is on computational materials design. It is an important component in Industry 4.0 as it triggers down to Manufacturing 4.0 and Materials 4.0. Our civilization is closely related to materials from the three ages in terms of materials in prehistory and protohistory of humanity: the Stone Age (∼3.4 million years, until 8700–2000 BC), based on raw materials from nature; the Bronze Age (3500–300 BC), based on human-made copper (alloyed with 12 wt% tin); and the Iron Age (1200 BC–800 AD), derived from human-made iron-carbon alloys. In the 21st century, the functionality of society relies on digital technology built on silicon-based electronics. Digitization through the integration of cyberphysical systems with many autonomous subsystems demands increasingly more efficient development of materials with emergent performance under extreme conditions, such as those required for the human colonization of other planets. This is the core of the 4th industrial revolution — in other words, digitization.

Digitization through the integration of cyberphysical systems with many autonomous subsystems demands increasingly more efficient development of materials with emergent performance under extreme conditions, such as those required for the human colonization of other planets. This is the core of the 4th industrial revolution — in other words, digitization.

HappyValley Industry: How do you envision your research impacting/changing your industry?

Dr. Zi-Kui Liu: Computational materials design enables efficient development and deployment of materials. Materials 4.0 refers to the advancement of materials information integrated into the manufacturing supply chain. While Manufacturing 4.0 is driving the interaction of machines and data to optimize yield and reduce cost, the market pressure for improved product performance is driving innovation for materials. The need to integrate material data into design, production and quality processes is paramount to achieving truly “smart manufacturing.” A consensus was reached that the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) established in 2011 (mgi.gov) provides a platform for the realization of Materials 4.0. I coined the term “Materials Genome® in 2002 to reflect the importance of computational approaches in representing the building blocks of materials.

This funded project by DOE ARPA-E aims to develop ultrahigh temperature materials for gas turbine use in the aviation and power generation industries through computational design, advanced manufacturing techniques and systematic characterization. It is noted that high temperature materials such as Ni-based superalloys are the key component of the jet engines that enable today’s aerospace industry. Materials for higher operation temperatures are desirable to increase the engine efficiency and thus reduce the pollutions.

While Manufacturing 4.0 is driving the interaction of machines and data to optimize yield and reduce cost, the market pressure for improved product performance is driving innovation for materials.

HappyValley Industry: What inspired you to follow this line of research?

Dr. Zi-Kui Liu: My original plan at Penn State was to carry out both computational and experimental research activities similar to my PhD study, which was primarily an experimental project with many additions of theoretical work from my curiosity on fundamental science. During [a] conversation with my program manager at [the] National Science Foundation (NSF), after I received a couple of NSF projects, the program manager indicated that I may want to focus all my efforts on computational research, as he felt the need and the future of this research direction He also helped me to identify existing and new NSF programs in this direction. I followed his advice and have since learned a lot of new computational skills.

HappyValley Industry: Why did you choose to conduct this research at Penn State specifically?

Dr. Zi-Kui Liu: I have always been curious to find out how things work and ask many ‘why’s, since I was little. One of the reasons that my family and I moved from Sweden to the U.S. was that I [wanted] to teach and research in universities. Penn State offered me such an opportunity in 1998. I grew up in a remote mountain area, and Happy Valley seemed a nice and quiet place. I have enjoyed working with my colleagues at Penn State, which was reflected in a YouTube video made some years ago at https://youtu.be/jXmhv4ncBjE.

HappyValley Industry: Would you encourage other researchers to make their home in Happy Valley, and why?

Dr. Zi-Kui Liu: Yes, I would. My family moved to Happy Valley before the Christmas in 1998. This is the place that I lived longest in my life so far. I love it. My two sons graduated with excellent educations from State College public schools, which have rigorous education portfolios and a wide range of enrichment programs for students to choose from. It was very easy to reach to all administrative levels to discuss a variety of education options. Both my sons were also able to take some courses at Penn State while in high school. My wife has been working from home for QuesTek Innovation and Apple since we move here. I have traveled often, and it felt so calm every time I came back to State College. Together, with some of my friends from China, we have just established a nonprofit organization “Hua Culture & Life Association,” aiming to be the focal point of cultural heritage from the greater China region, an integral part of society of the United State of America, and a place called home.