Sustainable Materials Research Laboratory work benefits Army, others

Sustainable Materials Research Laboratory work benefits Army, others


Rhythmically moving with barely-audible swishes, a 3-D printer in a lab deep in the Sustainable Materials Research Laboratory at the South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University is on the path to turning resins and fibers into high-performance composites as structural parts for military vehicles and more.

Funded by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, the Army’s corporate research laboratory (ARL) in Aberdeen, Maryland, Dr. Joseph Stanzione, associate professor of chemical engineering in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, is working with a team to develop 3-D printing processes that can be used in the field.

Think of it this way: one day soldiers on the frontline may be able to print the hatch to a tank out of a supply of plastic-like materials that travels with the troops.

Part of a collaboration

The Rowan group, which includes Drs. Will Riddell and Vince Beachley as well as undergraduate and graduate students, is collaborating with project lead PPG Industries, a Fortune 500 company and global supplier of paints, coatings, and specialty materials based in Pittsburgh; Drexel University; and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The Rowan team includes chemical and mechanical engineering students working under the five-year, multi-million-dollar cooperative agreement, a portion of which is directed to Rowan.

“The major gap with 3-D printing technology is being able to actually produce robust parts,” Stanzione said.

The issue, he said, is creating the best connections between the printed levels of materials. “You get a lot of holes and defects, and you get marginal welding between the layers.”

Researchers on the project are investigating expanding the process by developing customized 3-D printers and engineering new materials with fewer issues.

Many possible benefits

Successful, the new printers and materials will benefit the U.S. military in a number of ways, including limiting the amount of materials that will have to travel with soldiers and others, speeding up the replacement process and lowering costs.

For instance, when a bracket to hold a radio on a wall breaks, someone can print a new bracket in 45 minutes instead of replacing the whole radio in a less-timely fashion at a cost of $300-$400.

“Access to these 3-D instruments relatively close to the front lines means they can easily replace broken equipment,” said Stanzione, who has worked on projects with PPG since 2016 and with the ARL since his days as a master’s student at Drexel University and Ph.D. student at the University of Delaware. “Instead of having a convoy of stuff you may or may not need – or waiting for a month for a part to be shipped – you can print parts on demand.”

“It may take 20 to 30 hours to print a part, but that’s a lot faster than taking a couple of days or weeks or months to get it from overseas and across the country,” Stanzione said.

ARL researchers said what is even more critical is the goal of developing new and improved polymers and composites whose properties and performance significantly exceed the current state of the art, enabling replacement and design of structural components using polymeric additive manufacturing (that is, creating 3-D objects by incorporating layers of polymers).

Global implications

And the implications for the advancements in 3-D printing are more global than just for the military. The professor said such techniques and equipment may translate into improvements in such fields as health care, automobile manufacture and repair, transportation and construction materials.

For the students, the project is an introduction into a world of possibilities.

Kimberly Tran, a junior mechanical engineering major/electrical and computer engineering minor from Delran, New Jersey, works on the 3-D printer project. “The highlight of the work I've done is being able to assemble and test my CAD designs in a physical model. It is really satisfying to see how parts I've designed come together and what I can do to improve them,” she said. 

Other projects

While the work for the ARL is a critical project, faculty and students working in Rowan’s Sustainable Materials Research Laboratory are conducting other research as well. Those projects include initiatives funded by and/or for the National Science Foundation (generating polymers from bio-oils), National Institutes of Health (rapidly studying the toxicity of components in plastics and composites), Army Research Office – Department of the Army (evaluating flame-retardant materials that are derived from renewable sources) and more.

All told, one research scientist, three postdocs, six doctoral students, three master’s students and more than 20 undergraduate students work with Stanzione on these leading-edge projects. In his lab, they conduct research and support projects that meet critical needs of clients and partners and also develop the hands-on skills they will require as young professionals.

“We are dedicated to advancing fundamental and applied science and engineering technology related to materials research,” Stanzione said. “Our goal is to utilize nature’s chemistries, both those renewed on an annual basis by the biosphere and those nature has provided us in the form of fossil reserves, to enhance material performance and improve our global sustainability. We are achieving this by gaining a comprehensive understanding of the processing-structure-property relationships of our novel polymers and polymer composites.”

Alexandra DiVito, a senior chemical engineering student from Pennsauken, New Jersey, works on a project titled “Adding Value to Soy Meal,” with team members extracting alternative compounds from soy meal and attempting to use them to make bio-based, robust polymers. 

“I wanted to get involved with Dr. Stanzione's research after listening to him talk about his lab during a thermodynamics lecture. He was incredibly enthusiastic about his research, which was naturally contagious,” DiVito said. “I was intrigued by his attempts at making bio-based polymers and the results the lab was getting. I believe finding bio-based alternatives for the plastics used every day is important for a sustainable future, and this project allowed me to be part of research doing just that.”