Metals and nanomechanics expert Ying Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has won a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Chen will use the five-year, $540,000 grant to study and develop “smart metals” informed by leading-edge interface engineering. Known as shape memory alloys (SMAs), these smart metals can return to their original shape after being changed or deformed. With the ability to “remember” their shape and frequently switch between two different shapes, SMAs hold the potential to enable new innovations related to energy conversion, energy harvesting, impact absorption, and sensing in areas including aerospace, microelectronics, and robotics.

Ying Chen

Ying Chen

The CAREER Award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of NSF’s most competitive awards, placing emphasis on high-quality research and novel education initiatives.

Chen’s research group studies microstructure-property relationships in advanced metallic systems, exploiting new techniques to understand and manipulate how nanoscale defects and interfaces affect the overall properties of the materials. One area of investigation is polycrystalline SMAs, which are attractive for commercial applications because they are inexpensive and easy to make, but hampered by the fact they are often brittle and prone to fracture. Chen’s research aims to make these materials mechanically stable and durable during frequent shape switches.

Another area of investigation for Chen is interface engineering, and studying the networks formed by boundaries between the nanoscale crystallites (or grains) that make up many metallic and ceramic materials. These boundaries are important because they are usually the weak links in materials and can impact the mechanical properties of the macroscale material. Chen’s research uses experiments and computer simulations to understand such interface effects, and also employs new processing methods to optimize interface networks to enhance the properties of the overall materials.

With her CAREER project, titled “Interface Deformation and Compatibility in Shape Memory Polycrystals,” Chen seeks to combine the previously separate areas of interface engineering and internal material structural changes called displacive martensitic phase transformations. She will use experiments, analytical theory, and computational modeling to investigate new ways of developing SMAs that are less brittle and more robust, which in turn could enable a much wider use of SMAs across a range of applications at significantly reduced costs.

Chen’s CAREER Award also will support a variety of educational and outreach activities at Rensselaer, including undergraduate research experiences and initiatives for women in engineering.

Prior to joining the Rensselaer faculty in late 2011, Chen served as a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and worked as a materials scientist at GE Global Research.

Chen earned her bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing, and her doctoral degree in materials science and engineering from MIT.

For more information visit Chen’s research at Rensselaer.