Montana State University

MSU graduate receives NSF fellowship to study ways to improve composite materials

June 30, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News

Nathan Fritz, a graduate of Montana State University's College of Engineering, was recently honored with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN -- Nathan Fritz, a fall 2015 graduate of Montana State University’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in the College of Engineering, has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program Fellowship to research ways to improve the structural fibers used in composite materials.

The fellowship gives students up to $30,000 a year for three years to attend graduate school and conduct their research. This year, 2,000 students from nearly 17,000 applicants were awarded fellowships, according to the NSF.

“The fellowship gave me the freedom to attend my top choice school because I’m coming in with funding,” Fritz said. “Having my stipend and part of my tuition covered means half the cost is taken care of for the professor who accepted me into his lab.”

Fritz, of Billings, will begin his graduate studies in the fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Fritz will work under Brian Wardle, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of MIT’s Nano-Engineered Composite Aerospace Structures Lab. At MIT, he will research ways to improve composite materials, commonly called composites, by strengthening the fibers used in them.

Composites are made up of two or more different materials, which allows them to be fine-tuned for their intended use, Fritz said. Often used in aerospace parts, automotive components, construction and other applications, composites provide a lighter weight alternative to steel or other heavier materials.

Fritz’s research is primarily in fiber-reinforced plastics. These plastics are composites comprised of fiber, which provides structure and strength, and plastic polymers, which hold the fibers together. Examples of these are fiberglass and carbon fiber composites, Fritz said.

“In these composites, you can take the fibers and orient them in such a way that they align with your load, whereas; with steel, you’re paying in weight for its strength in all directions,” he said.

The problem, he added, is that because the fibers are layered on top of each other, like stacks of fabric, they are inherently weak between layers.

Fritz will look at growing carbon nanotubes – molecular-scale tubes of carbon that are among the strongest fibers known -- on the exterior of the composite fibers to “lock” together the layers, thus making them stronger.

“It adds strength, not just in the direction of the fibers, but perpendicular to the fibers,” Fritz said.

Fritz said he is grateful for the support of the MSU faculty who helped him get into a research group as an undergraduate which, ultimately, led him to the NSF fellowship.

“The summer after my sophomore year, I wanted to get more into my mechanical engineering major so I started looking for a research group,” he said.

Persistence and a list of possible research opportunities from Sarah Codd, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, led to a spot in the Composite Technologies Research Group in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department under Associate Professor David Miller, Professor Douglas Cairns, Research Engineer Daniel Samborsky and the now-retired Professor John Mandell.

Miller remembers Fritz coming into his lab that summer, resume in hand, in search of a job.

“Not knowing where I stood financially, I told him to come back in a few days – the kiss of death for most students,” Miller said. “But, he came back again and again. Finally, I ‘gave in’ and accepted him into the group. It was one of the better decisions I had made in a while.”

Miller calls Fritz an “outstanding young man who is truly a pleasure to be around and work with.”

“Not only is he smart, he has a very keen wit and a relentless work ethic,” Miller said.

In the lab, Fritz first worked with a graduate student on a project studying a section of a composite blade of a water turbine to test a new method of monitoring the structure and determine the effects of saltwater exposure on the blade and the sensors.

After graduating in December, he began an independent study in the lab, researching the noise that composites, such as fiberglass and carbon fiber, make as they start to break.

“We have what are essentially extremely sensitive microphones that listen for acoustic emissions,” Fritz said. “What we’re trying to prove is that certain properties of the noise indicate what happened to the composite, whether a fiber or the surrounding plastic broke.”

If the fibers are breaking, he said, it’s a sign the composite is about to fail, since the fibers are what carry the load.

Predicting imminent failure is important in monitoring structures and objects made with composites so they can be pulled out of service, get repaired and be put back into service before they fail, Fritz said. An example of this would be parts used on the space shuttle that could then be monitored in “real time” as the damage is happening.

Equally important is improving composites in general, as they are increasingly being used in aerospace applications, he added.

“As composites are used more, there needs to be a better way to predict when they’re going to fail,” Fritz said. “Right now, composite structures are generally oversized because we don’t understand how they fail as well as we do with metals. Better understanding of failure in composites will lead to lighter products because you wouldn’t have to oversize structures as much ‘just in case.’”

Before heading to MIT, Fritz will spend the summer interning with Boeing in Seattle. After earning his master’s degree, he says he hopes to continue his composites research or work on improving other materials.

“Research inspires my passion,” he said. “I’m excited by the opportunity to continue to improve materials as we bring the next generation of advanced materials from theory into industry.”

Denise Hoepfner, denise.hoepfner@montana.edu or (406) 994-4542