Pass Elizabeth Opila’s laboratory in the evening and you can see her equipment glowing. That’s because Opila, associate professor of materials science and engineering, is interested in the response of materials to hot and reactive conditions. And when Opila says hot, she means it. She and her students are heating materials to as high as 2,000˚C.
“Regardless of the material, our approach is similar,” she says. “We try to understand what happens to a material as it gets hot, predict how long it will survive, and determine how we can make it better.”
Quite naturally, this area of research interests jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, which would like to replace many of the metal components of engines with the latest ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), which can withstand higher temperatures. “There could be a huge payoff for adopting CMCs,” Opila says. “Engines with CMCs would be much lighter, run hotter and, as a result, be significantly more efficient.”
But there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome first—and Opila is addressing a series of them. For instance, CMCs must be able to withstand the corrosive effect of water vapor produced during the high-temperature and high-flow combustion characteristic of jet engines. With funding from Rolls-Royce, Opila has built a device that simulates this environment and is testing the effect of steam at high temperatures and velocities on different CMC materials. She hopes to discover those underlying characteristics that enable some CMCs to outperform others.
Opila’s expertise in testing and analyzing materials in extremely hot environments has applications for fuel cells and thermal protection as well. “If we can find new materials that work in these demanding situations, we will enable huge performance improvements for power and propulsion technologies,” she says.