Young Investigator Awards Help Bring Professors’ Creativity to Life
Jonsson School Scientists Receive Funding to Develop Robot Skeleton, Nano-Printer Projects

Dr. Yonas Tadesse

Dr. Yonas Tadesse, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, hopes to design a stronger and lighter musculoskeletal system for robots. Tadesse is one of two UT Dallas recipients in the Young Investigator Program.

Two rising stars in research at UT Dallas have been recognized for their promise and creativity.

Dr. Yonas Tadesse and Dr. Majid Minary, of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, have been named recipients in the 2015 Young Investigator Program (YIP) by the Office of Naval Research, and will receive up to $170,000 a year in funding for three years.

YIP seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are in their first or second tenure-track appointments. This is the second consecutive year that two Jonsson School faculty members have received YIP awards.

Tadesse, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, hopes the award will help him design a stronger, lighter, 3-D printable and bio-inspired musculoskeletal system for robots.

“The project objective is to design bone-like structures, artificial muscles and cartilages, and to understand the system through modeling and testing,” he said. “The musculoskeletal system can be used to create complex robots. The proposed research will advance the design and manufacturing of future humanoid robots, unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles and therefore contribute to the mobility research for the Office of Naval Research.” 

Dr. Majid Minary

Dr. Majid Minary

Tadesse will build on previous findings from the University’s Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute to fabricate robots with new artificial muscles. Last year, UT Dallas researchers created new muscles that can lift 100 times more weight and generate 100 times higher mechanical power than a human muscle of the same length and weight.

“These new polymer muscles are low-cost, have a high actuation strain and they’re simple to fabricate. We can test these new muscles in robots and use computational tools to predict the overall performance of joints at various scales,” Tadesse said.

To complete the musculoskeletal system, Tadesse wants to use thermoplastic material infused with nanomaterials to manufacture robot bones directly from a computer; he wants to be able to create a 3-D skeleton.

“If joints used in robots are made of pure thermoplastic material, as in the case of many prototypes, they will easily fail and break, particularly for small sizes. That’s why we proposed a manufacturing process that includes a mixture of nanomaterials.”

Tadesse said his research is fueled by the pre-existing, natural designs of the environment. He said his work is “bioinspired.”

“Bioinspired designs are optimum in performance, and they are very efficient. It is advantageous to develop the building block of robots based on nature,” Tadesse said.

Minary, also an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will use his funding to build a 3-D printer that prints using metals at a tiny scale — the nanolevel.

Current 3-D printers are limited to using plastics or resins. The challenge for Minary is downsizing the current systems.

Young Investigator Program

The Young Investigator Program seeks to identify and support academic scientists and engineers who are in their first or second tenure-track appointments and show exceptional promise for doing creative research.

The program's objectives are to attract outstanding faculty members of universities to the Department of Navy's research program, to support their research, and to encourage their teaching and research careers.

This year’s YIP candidates were selected from 383 research proposals based on merit and potential breakthrough advances for the Navy and Marine Corps. Winners represent 31 academic institutions across the country in numerous disciplines.

Last year, Dr. Majid Minary and Dr. Zhiqiang Lin of the Jonsson School received YIP grants to design materials inspired by bone and to develop a framework to protect computers’ cores, respectively.

“Metal conductors are essential components of any device. We plan to develop methodologies for 3-D printing of metallic structures at the sub-micron scale. Our project is aligned with the national strategic plan for advanced manufacturing, which is aimed at developing technology platforms that will provide the basis for future manufacturing industries,” he said. 

Minary plans to use electrodeposition, or electro-plating, which has traditionally been used for coating metal objects with a thin layer of different metals. For example, chromium, given its corrosion-resistant property, is used to coat many objects like car parts. 

“Conventional electrodeposition is performed in a large bath of electrolyte. However, we use nano-pipettes to confine electrolytes to a very small area,” Minary said. “By steering this nano-pipette in three dimensions using precision positioning systems, we can generate a desired 3-D pattern in metal. Ideally, these patterns are directly taken from a computer model.” 

Minary said building the 3-D nanoprinter will require physics and mechanics, materials science, micro/nano-fluidics, mass transport, electrodeposition, heat transfer, and many other sciences. 

“There are fundamental science questions that need to be answered in this project. So, we will be collaborating with scientists and engineers from all across campus,” Minary said. 

Specific applications of this technology will include nano-electronics devices, nano-sensors, nano-scale electromagnetic antennas and interconnects for stacked integrated circuits. If successful, the printer will help develop miniature devices to achieve compact and lightweight components.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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