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Professor’s Research on Advanced Composite Materials Wins NSF Faculty Early-Career Award

Project of Engineering's Marianna Maiaru Supported by $568K CAREER Grant

ME Asst. Prof. Marianna Maiaru
Asst. Prof. Marianna Maiaru

08/03/2022
By Edwin L. Aguirre

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has recognized Mechanical Engineering Asst. Prof. Marianna Maiaru with the agency’s most prestigious faculty early-career development award, for research that could lead to improvements in the performance of everything from booster rockets to sports equipment. 

Called the CAREER award, the designation honors professors who demonstrate strong potential to lead research breakthroughs in their institutions. 

Maiaru’s work focuses on thermoset composite materials, which are advanced polymers reinforced with high-strength fibers that are used to create lightweight yet superstrong structural components for a wide range of applications – from missiles, spacecraft and satellites to commercial and military aircraft, wind turbine blades and even sports helmets.

A major technological challenge in manufacturing thermoset composites are the microscopic cracks that develop during the curing process. This curing-induced “microcracking” can weaken the composite layers or joints and lead to structural failure.

GE offshore wind turbine Photo by GE
Composite materials are used to fabricate high-strength, lightweight structural components for a wide range of applications, including wind turbine blades. Shown here is General Electric’s Haliade-X 12-megawatt offshore wind turbine with its 351-foot-long composite blades.
“During manufacturing, the material undergoes a change in phase from a liquid polymer mixture to a solid, cross-linked structure,” says Maiaru. “Internal stresses can build up and cause microcracks to form. Extensive microcracking can compromise the strength of the thermosets and contribute to the structure’s subsequent failure, so being able to predict the occurrence of microcracks is crucial.”

Maiaru will use her NSF funding – worth more than $568,000 over a period of five years – to conduct multiscale process modeling and experiments in the lab. Her goal is to develop crack-free thermoset composites and optimize their performance, as well as to reduce manufacturing time, cost, material waste and energy consumption while creating better composite materials, including 3D woven textiles, bonded adhesives and thermosets for additive manufacturing (3D printing).

Maiaru hopes the project will contribute to establishing U.S. leadership in advanced composites manufacturing.

“Our ability to manufacture the next generation of high-performance, lightweight, complex structures depends upon fabricating damage-free composites with enhanced mechanical properties,” she says.

Designing and analyzing composite structures is already a field of expertise for Maiaru, who earned her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 2014 from the Politecnico di Torino in Italy and joined the UMass Lowell faculty in 2016.

NASA SLS rocket Photo by NASA
NASA is using composites to build booster rockets for space exploration. Shown here is the agency’s brand-new mega rocket, called the Space Launch System, which is designed to ferry astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Last year, she was awarded a three-year, $450,000 Young Investigator Program grant by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to support her work in advancing the development and processing of high-strength, high-temperature structural materials, called ceramic matrix composites, for use in cutting-edge, hypersonic aerospace vehicles.

She also received a three-year, $750,000 grant from NASA to apply the concepts of ICME, or integrated computational materials engineering, to the design and manufacturing of a key composite component of the futuristic Aurora D8 aircraft

A Broad Educational Impact

“My NSF-funded program will support graduate and undergraduate students,” says Maiaru. “Currently, I have four Ph.D. students, one undergraduate student and two postdocs in my group, and I am recruiting for the CAREER grant project.”

She also plans to integrate public educational and outreach activities for the project to enhance young students’ learning through engaging class interactions. 

“We aim to broaden the participation of girls and underrepresented minorities in STEM through collaborations with the Lowell Boys & Girls Club as well as summer programs focused on engineering applications and hands-on experiments,” Maiaru says.

“We will also partner with the Urban Massachusetts Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation at UML to support students from historically underrepresented groups through paid internships,” she says.