Manufacturing success: Research, student labs take off

Since he was hired in 2014 as part of the University of Nevada, Reno's push to strengthen research in advanced manufacturing, Bin Li, assistant professor in chemical and materials engineering, has been hard at work.

Bin Li

Bin Li

In 2016, Li received two National Science Foundation grants to combine computer simulations and model creation to better understand the production and use of high-strength steel and magnesium alloys in automotive and aerospace manufacturing. This past year, Li was involved in setting up a lab and new minor to introduce undergraduate students to advanced manufacturing techniques.

New methods for galvanizing high-strength steel

Li's research on high-strength steel is leading to new ways of understanding the complex reactions during the galvanization of steels. Being able to properly galvanize is a key step to successfully manufacturing the product, but as the strength of steel is improved by adding more alloying elements, those elements make it harder for galvanization to occur.

"The reason steel makers want to develop high-strength steels is because you can reduce the weight of whatever it is you're producing," Li said. "This is a product that can lead to higher fuel efficiencies and lower green house gas emissions."

Li's high-strength steel grant, "Fundamental Investigation of Zinc-Coating of Advanced High Strength Steels Directed by Multiscale Modeling and Experiments," is in collaboration with Mississippi State University and Missouri Institute of Science and Technology. Researchers there are creating scenarios that Li can simulate and model, adding to the collective knowledge of how high-strength steels can be properly coated.

"Our collaborators at Mississippi State are creating ‘interatomic potentials,' which are complex descriptions of how the atoms of iron, manganese, carbon, oxygen, silicon, zinc and aluminum interact in steel while it's being heat treated," Li said.

Early looks at Mississippi State's potentials have already led to new discoveries about high-strength steel's chemical state.

"On the chemistry side of the galvanizing process, the formula is understood as Fe2Al5," Li said. "Now that we've done some early simulations, we found that we can't get a stable structure of that phase. As we continue to calculate the energetics between the different phases, we hope we can resolve more mysteries."

Rethinking and rebuilding magnesium alloys

Li's second NSF-funded grant, "Design of Twinning Induced Plasticity Magnesium Alloys," focuses on magnesium alloy design and is proceeding into early experimentation and simulations.

"The purpose of this project is to look for a different design approach to magnesium alloys," Li said. "Magnesium alloys are about one-third lighter than aluminum alloys, and you can imagine if you use that material for cars you can reduce a lot of weight."

Traditionally, aluminum alloys have been strengthened through heat treatment, and this same approach has been applied to magnesium alloys, resulting in only minor improvements. Li proposes that working with aluminum alloys and magnesium alloys in similar ways is the wrong method. Rather, Li and his research team are looking to directly eliminate the defective activities within magnesium alloys in order to strengthen them.

"The crystal structure of magnesium is very different from aluminum, so traditional strengthening is unsuccessful," Li said. "Our computer simulations will give us an idea of what alloy elements we can use in magnesium to impede those defect activities."

New manufacturing minor gives students hands-on laboratory skills

Outside of Li's research, he's also involved in the College of Engineering's new manufacturing quality minor, which started this fall. Last year, Li, along with professors from mechanical engineering and computer science and engineering, received $139,000 from the College of Engineering to create an advanced manufacturing laboratory to give students hands-on experience with materials processing.

Last spring, Li taught the senior design course for the materials science and engineering program, which focused on processing lightweight magnesium alloys.

"It was my first time teaching senior design, and I was very proud of the students and how fruitful the class was," Li said. "A few companies in Carson City learned about our projects and have already begun offering internships and job opportunities to our students, so it became very clear how important it is to give students materials processing experience here at the University."