Kettering University receives fifth MRI grant from the National Science Foundation

I always want to work on projects that have a potential for application or commercialization or something that can help humanity in some way or another.”

World class scientific research at Kettering University is about to be propelled to new heights as the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the school its fifth Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) award in the last three years. The five awards ties Kettering with Wayne State University for the most amongst higher education institutions in the state of Michigan.

Kettering faculty and students involved in nine different projects from the Chemical Engineering, Engineering Physics, Biochemistry and Applied Biology departments will benefit from the $552,650 award that will lead to the acquisition of an X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS) instrument. The XPS is the industry standard measurement tool for the chemical composition of surface materials.

“This is extremely useful. This is the one piece of equipment that we’ve wanted since 2012 when we started our research,” said Dr. Mary Gilliam, the principle investigator for the NSF award and professor of Chemical Engineering at Kettering University.

Gilliam’s research focuses on atmospheric pressure plasma – the fourth state of matter along with solid, liquid and gas – on different surfaces. Gilliam and her research team is examining African sorghum seeds and experimenting with different plasma coating on the seeds that may attract and extract nutrients more efficiently in order to permit better yields in challenging soils.

“I always want to work on projects that have a potential for application or commercialization or something that can help humanity in some way or another,” Gilliam said.

The XPS instrument will allow Gilliam and her colleagues to examine the chemical composition of the plasma surfaces that they create so they can accurately correlate the structure of the polymers with their unique properties. Other examples of research will include biocompatibility testing for materials used in the human body or potentially creating and determining the chemical composition of scratch resistance surfaces. Prior to this award, Kettering faculty were sending individual samples for testing off-site. Now, once the XPS arrives in January 2015, faculty members will have the ability to test thousands of samples on campus.

“It’s a better tool to use to tailor our surfaces instead of working in the dark,” Gilliam said. “It will also tell us if we have one condition that works better than another – it will tell us what chemical composition is causing that change in performance in a surface.” 

Research associated with the surfaces also has commercial applications as Gilliam is working on testing a plasma surface on a golf ball that will prevent it from slicing. She is also working with chip bags to develop a coating that increases the water barrier which will increase the shelf life of the product.

“We got the grant because we definitely have shown the usefulness of it by including the data and results from our many different projects,” Gilliam said. “We demonstrated that this piece of equipment is a standard for material characterization facilities. I think we made it very clear that we needed it.”

XPS testing will further tie chemical properties with the performance of materials for biomedical coatings and batteries and fuel cells. It will also provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art equipment, a technical experience that would usually be reserved for much later in their academic careers.  

“The model that we chose is automated and user-friendly so we will be comfortable letting students use it,” Gilliam said. “Usually graduate students and doctoral students only use it but this will allow undergraduates to have access to a graduate tool.”

In addition to academic research, the XPS furthers Kettering’s mission to enhance community engagement and vitality by providing commercial opportunities for corporate partnerships and educational outreach to Flint-area students.  Students will be able to get hands-on experience with the XPS and its diverse applications through Kamp Kettering, Academically Interested Minds (AIM) and Lives Improve Through Engineering (LITE).

“This is really going to help us accelerate a lot of our research,” Gilliam said. “If we grow our research and we grow these capabilities then it enhances Kettering’s position as a driver of economic development and growth in the Flint community.”