The DoD helps fund the science behind composites used in aviation.


Conventional aircraft have typically been built with familiar materials like aluminum. Newer aircraft that the Air Force is flying use a significant amount of composite materials, such as carbon fiber. These are materials that the Air Force knows very little about, at least compared to materials like aluminum, which has been used for decades.

The fundamental science behind the behavior of these materials can be understood using quantum mechanics. Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kaushik Dayal has received a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the Department of Defense (DoD) to develop new methods to use quantum mechanics to provide fundamental insight into the behavior of new materials.

“We aim to apply fundamental models from chemistry to applied engineering problems,” Dayal said. “Doing this requires us to develop new computational methods.”

This project relies heavily on collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University, Caltech (the lead institution), UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, Cornell, the University of Minnesota and the Air Force Research Lab. The MURI program brings together interdisciplinary teams of researchers to problem-solve high-priority topics involving a cross-cutting approach. This multidisciplinary approach brings forth innovation, accelerates research progress and expedites a transition of results. Awards are made in research topics specified by the participating defense agencies each year. This grant is for $7.5 million, $1.215 million of which will go to support Dayal and the CMU team’s research.

“The team includes experts in chemistry, applied mathematics and mechanics of materials,” Dayal said. “This enables us to bridge the gap between fundamental theory and real-world application."

This project has applications that go well beyond aircraft composites. For instance, lightweight sensors, actuators and other sophisticated electronics on aircraft use cutting-edge new materials whose properties can only be predicted using quantum mechanics. Dayal’s research specializes in developing analytical and computational multiscale techniques and applying these techniques to materials engineering, positioning his group to make progress on this project.

With the help of this research, we will have a better understanding of how composite materials perform in the real world. These insights into the practical uses of materials have the potential to allow for a wide range of future innovations.