Engineering for the Future

The two most recent recipients of the Purdue Young Scholar Award are seeking to change the world—now and ten years down the line

When Paul Zmola (BSME ’44, MSME ’47, PhD ’50) established the Young Scholar Awards to advance nuclear engineering research at Purdue, his philosophy was simple: “What strikes me as especially important to understand about the potential of nuclear power is that these energy systems are not just technical, they’re environmental, political, and perceptual as well.”

This year’s award recipients, Igor Jovanovic and Jean Paul Allain, both assistant professors of nuclear engineering, are working to realize that goal by employing Zmola’s donations into advanced research on technologies that we’re just now beginning to grasp. Both men are interested in emerging uses of radiation that can lead to profound security, environmental, and medical advances.

Jovanovic, who earned his PhD at University of California-Berkeley by way of Zagreb, Croatia, spent more than five years researching ultra-high intensity lasers at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Arriving at Purdue in August 2007, he brought that expertise with him and has already made a significant impact. “I’ve worked to start a new lab here called the Nuclear Engineering Intense Laser Lab,” he says. “Already we’ve acquired quite a bit of equipment for it, and we employ many students in our research. It’s progressing very well so far.”

That research involves a number of practical applications. For one, Jovanovic is working with the Department of Homeland Security to develop new methods to detect nuclear material at high-risk entry points like shipping ports. “Because there has been some concern about the potential risk of smuggling bombs through ports, we’re developing radiation detection in a non-disruptive fashion, so that we can keep the ports and the country safe without interfering with international trade.”

Another area Jovanovic sees as ripe with potential is helping to alleviate the worldwide energy deficit. At Livermore, he’d been involved with research at the laser fusion facility to harness vast amounts of energy from water, rather than relying on fossil fuels. He’s continuing that research at Purdue and keeping the Department of Energy within earshot. “In all of this research, the question is ‘How can you make radiation interact with matter in a fundamentally different way?’” Once researchers like Jovanovic find a new way, it could open the floodgates for the usable production of fusion power in the future.

Allain arrived with Jovanovic in August 2007 after earning a University of Illinois PhD and spending four years as a staff scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, working on problems from nuclear fusion materials science to nanolithography. Like his colleague, Allain heads up his own lab, the Radiation Surface and Interface Science Laboratory. He stresses that while the traditional association of nuclear engineering is with the production of power, he’s utilizing his research grant to push the level of discourse in novel and emerging areas.

“I’m more interested in high-risk, high pay-off areas,” Allain says. “There’s a lack of fundamental understanding on the mechanisms of how radiation in the form of ion beams, or other excitation sources, can be used to control patterning and structure at the nanoscale on surfaces. In particular, developing a new class of materials through radiation-induced synthesis and establishing the field of radiation surface and interface science. It’s frontier-type work, looking at applications 10 to15 years down the road.”

In addition to applications in nuclear materials science, quantum computing, and nuclear detection, radiation-modified surfaces play an integral role in the biomedical area. “We can actually use radiation to apply special surfaces that would be both biocompatible and exhibit function in ways never thought of before,” says Allain. “This technology is especially useful in manufacturing stents at the nanoscale to promote arterial wall growth for patients who’ve suffered brain aneurysms.” These novel materials would also open the door to localized imaging and detection of cancer cells.

“Purdue is a ‘let’s build something’ type of school,” Zmola is famous for saying. And Professors Jovanovic and Allain, employing the resources provided by Zmola, are living proof of that ongoing legacy.

- Patrick Kelly