Research team led by MatSci's Jeffrey Rickman to study the impact of grain growth on material properties

Every time you flip a switch, swipe a screen, click an icon or press a button, you are in reality activating an immense network of polycrystalline microstructures to do your bidding—one that exists on the most infinitesimal of scales.

These tiny networks are comprised of single grains of crystallite separated by what are known as grain boundaries. The arrangement and interaction of these grains and boundaries at the nanoscale controls a given material’s properties at larger scales. This delicate molecular entanglement, then, determines the material’s ability to support a device or system as intended, such as the conducting of light, heat, or packets of electrons.

As the grains evolve over time, these arrangements are often reshaped, changing the material’s properties along with them. Yet it is difficult for scientists to pinpoint exactly how various mechanisms, topologies, and time scales will gang up on these tiny grains and their boundaries, and then ultimately how this will impact the material’s effectiveness.

With new support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Jeffrey Rickman, a professor of materials science and engineering at Lehigh University, is developing a model to help scientists and engineers better understand and predict the impact of grain growth and evolution on the characteristics of various polycrystalline materials.

“Grain growth is a very complex process,” says Rickman. “Our goal in this project is to establish links among the statistical measurements of grain growth over time, and under various conditions—and to predict the resulting impact on a material’s properties.”

Grain growth
In this image, several microstructures associated with specialty aluminas show the effects of both normal and abnormal grain growth.

According to Rickman, the recently-funded project will also create and employ specific data analysis techniques to study the dynamic evolution of grains in experimental and computational systems, in order to validate and to further refine existing microstructural models. “This component of the project will lead to the development of new materials informatics methods, innovative stochastic differential equations and models of grain growth, new mathematical and numerical analysis techniques for coarsening systems, and improved computational tools,” he says.

Professor Rickman also believes that the project is well aligned with the Materials Genome Initiative, a U.S. federal multi-agency initiative focused on improving the discovering, manufacturing, and deploying of advanced materials. “This is a highly interdisciplinary project that requires expertise and contributions from applied mathematicians and materials scientists. We intend to make predictive computational algorithms and data widely available and accessible to other researchers, and ultimately to help improve the performance and reliability of the polycrystalline materials used in so many technological devices, systems, and structures.” In this project, Rickman is working with partners from Columbia University, Illinois Institute of Technology, and University of Utah.

About Jeffrey Rickman

Rickman’s research interests span multiple disciplines. He applies materials informatics to analyze big-data problems in materials science, such as the characterization of abnormal grain growth in ceramic oxides and the prediction of the plastic response of high-entropy alloys. He is also interested in the description of kinetics and pattern formation associated with phase transitions, the modeling of dislocation dynamics and its impact of plastic behavior, and the quantification of the thermodynamic and kinetic properties of internal interfaces.

His work has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Army Research Office. A member of the Lehigh faculty since 1993, Rickman has received both the Harold Chambers Junior and Class of ’61 professorships from Lehigh.

Rickman is an editor for both Acta Materialia and Scripta Materialia and the author of approximately 150 publications. He has received several honors, including Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi memberships, the NSF’s Young Investigator Award, and Miami University’s Culler Prize. He was elected as a Fellow of ASM International in 2019, and as a Fellow of the American Ceramic Society in 2021.

He joined the American Ceramic Society in 1998 and has been active in both the Basic Science and Electronics Divisions. He served as an organizer and program chair for the Electronic and Advanced Materials meetings in 2019 and 2020, and as a member of the Sosman Committee in 2019. He also co-organized materials informatics symposia at MS&T 2020.

Rickman is a member of Lehigh’s Nano Human Interfaces Initiative, a multidisciplinary research initiative that proposes to develop a human-machine interface to improve the ability of scientists to visualize and interpret the vast amounts of data that are generated by scientific research. He is also affiliated with two of Lehigh’s interdisciplinary research institutes, the Institute for Functional Materials and Devices (I-FMD) and the Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy (I-CPIE).

Rickman holds undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics from Miami University and an MS and PhD in physics from Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to joining the Lehigh faculty, he held postdoctoral appointments at the University of Michigan and Argonne National Laboratory.

Professor Jeffrey Rickman

Professor Jeffrey Rickman, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Lehigh University