Collaborative research nets multiple grants for mechanical engineering faculty

Grants support multiple research projects in advanced manufacturing

Yiliang "Leon" Liao, center, is currently researching topics such as soft robotics and energy storage.


11/7/2018 | By: Nikki Moylan |

Numerous faculty members in the College of Engineering have been doing research on ways to improve technology in areas such as energy storage, soft robotics, and biomedical engineering.

Faculty in the mechanical engineering department received three National Science Foundation, or NSF, grants recently to advance their research in advance manufacturing, with applications in a wide range of areas. Yiliang "Leon" Liao, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is principal investigator on the three grants, which are collaborative efforts with faculty at the University and other institutions.

These three grants, all awarded by NSF over the summer, total $1.4 million, with the University's share at $800,000, and allow for Liao and his research partners to develop advanced manufacturing and materials processing technologies towards a wide variety of applications.
"American leadership in manufacturing and innovation faces challenges from global competitors, and advanced manufacturing has been a hot topic in recent years," Liao said.

Because of Liao's work in advanced manufacturing, companies with ideas can quickly make prototypes and fulfill large orders quickly and competitively.

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Liao is also one of a number of faculty involved in developing a new manufacturing quality minor, which was launched this fall. Liao teaches several courses that are a part of the minor, which is interdisciplinary and aims to "provide students with skills and experiences that will help them better apply the knowledge gained in their majors to specialized problems in the field of product quality control in manufacturing processes."

Collaborations include researchers near and far

The grants involve collaborations with several other universities, and Liao also has a team of 4 Ph.D. students from the University working with him.

The first project is a collaboration with University of Nevada, Reno assistant professor Yan Wang. Together they research supercapacitors, which are energy storage devices with a rapid ability to build charge and discharge. The professors will use lasers to improve the use of graphene, which is a thin, single layer of carbon atoms. Graphene in recent years, is considered to be a "supermaterial," and improving its usage in supercapacitor applications is key.

A second project Liao is working on involves nanosized diamond particles and their use in biomedical treatments like oncology or regenerative medicine. Liao is focusing on the best way to fabricate these nanodiamonds, while his collaborators at Arizona State University and University of California, Los Angeles are working on potential biomedical applications for the nanodiamonds.

Liao also has an innovative proposal to disseminate those research results to schoolchildren around the region.

"The knowledge and results gained from this research will be integrated into a comic book," Liao said. "We will disseminate the comic book series, Nanodiamond Nora and Neal, to K-12 students and teachers in the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada."

The third project is a collaboration with University of Nevada, Reno assistant professor Matteo Aureli. This project focuses on soft strain sensors, which are used in both soft robotics and medical rehabilitation, such as prosthetic devices for victims of strokes or Parkinson's disease.

Many of the existing sensors are stiff, non-stretchable, and ceramic based. Aureli and Liao's research aims to create a flexible sensor that helps in biomedical research and soft robotics development.

"We create self-powered, soft, high sensitively strain sensor for applications in cyber-physical systems," Liao said.

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Liao earned his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2012, and has had his research featured in over 30 journals, such as Acta Materialia, Nano Letters, and Journal of Applied Physics. Before coming to the University in 2014, Liao worked as a research engineer at the Caterpillar Technical Center on the manufacturing and material team. He focused on ways to efficiently produce the iconic yellow machines used on construction sites across the country.

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