Two graduate mechanical engineering students at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) saw their careers blossom upon receiving recognition at an aeronautical research conference in Baltimore. One research project by Ervin Beloni, of Clifton, a master’s degree candidate, would someday enable airplanes to fly longer distances without refueling; the other project by Swati Umbrajkar, of Edison, a doctoral candidate, would someday enable solid propellants and explosives to work more effectively.
More than $2 million in grants issued since 2001 from the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA support the work of these students. Student advisor Edward Dreizin, PhD, a professor in the department of chemical engineering at NJIT, is principal investigator of the grants.
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“I love introducing students to this kind of research,” said Dreizin. “Research obviously has its own rewards as students do the work and see the results turning out the way they hoped. But then it’s even better to have an independent panel of experts tell you, your work is a cut above the others and have your students awarded. That’s why we invest time and energy at NJIT helping students work on research projects that are both academically challenging and that deal with real-world problems.”
The conference, held last fall at Johns Hopkins University, is an annual event sponsored by the northeast section of the American Institute for Astronautics and Aeronautics. NJIT students presented research along with graduate students from Johns Hopkins University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Maryland and other schools. Two members of NJIT’s four-member team received commendations.
Umbrajkar, who is pursuing her doctorate in mechanical engineering, studies the kinetics of thermite reactions using nanocomposite reactive materials. Last year, she was lead author on papers that appeared in the journals Thermochimica Acta and Propellants, Explosives and Pyrotechnics,
Scientists have known about thermite reactions since 1910. Such reactions occur between a metal (typically, aluminum) and a metal oxide (most often, iron oxide). These reactions produce heat that forms aluminum oxide and molten iron. To date, the only use of such reactions has been in welding rail tracks and similar large-scale joining. Research now at NJIT, though, is pointing to other possibilities.
The main problem with thermite reactions is that they are hard to start. A low rate of initial reactions occurs over the surface of particles.
“Our work is addressing this problem by producing new nano-composite materials,” said Dreizin. “They are micron-sized powders but each particle is a composite of nano-domains of reactive components. So, in our case the reactive surface area (or contact area between the components) increases dramatically and reactions are now easy to start and fast to propagate.”
This opens many new applications, both in military and civil technologies. The applications include enhanced blast explosives, mining explosives, pyrotechnic devices (e.g., for automotive airbags), solid propellants and more.
Beloni, who is pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, is trying to create fuels that will enable jetliners to go further on the same tank of gas. “Ervin’s research is very exciting,” said Dreizin. “He is developing what is called slurry fuel, which combines conventional jet fuels with powder additives based on novel reactive nanomaterials.”
With these additives, the volumetric heat of combustion of the fuel increases substantially. Such fuels can revolutionize air breathing propulsion.
“Currently, Ervin’s work enables all of us to understand better the mechanisms of combustion of newly developed metallic materials designed to serve as fuel additives,” Dreizin said.
Ervin also works with nanocomposites, but they do not include fuel and oxidizers. Rather, he is using metal and metalloids that can react exothermically, producing a compound which can then oxidize with air, serving as an oxidizer.
Plans are being made to apply for patents related to both research projects.