Materials Research Turns Up the Heat for Turbine Engine Progress

Assistant Professor, Michael Titus
Gas turbine engines, the driving force behind the airplanes we fly and the electricity flowing through our power grids, are among the world’s most complex machines. They contain some of the world’s strongest materials, such as nickel-based superalloys. How might the engines be improved if these heat-resistant components could be made even stronger?

The groundbreaking research of Purdue materials engineering professor Michael Titus, who recently gained support from a prestigious National Science Foundation grant, is pursuing answers to this question. His probes of superalloys’ behavior at the level of their constituent atoms could lead to engines that consume less fuel and emit fewer greenhouse gases, possibly even to less costly air travel.

A five-year “NSF CAREER” grant of approximately $500,000 will allow Titus to further leverage the University’s newest equipment enabling new hypotheses, observation, computation and prediction related to a phenomenon that posed mysteries for decades. That is, the metal “deforms” slightly under the extreme heat produced inside turbines.

“My work tries to marry atomistic simulations and characterization techniques” to analyze the formation of platelets, only four atoms thick, inside the superalloys, Titus says. The atoms’ behavior, which might first be considered a weakness, actually “stabilizes the platelets and make them very strong”—even more resilient under intense conditions.

“This phenomenon could guide future alloy design by changing the composition so we can utilize the strengthening mechanism,” he says. The basic research could empower manufacturers to develop and integrate materials allowing engines to carry less bulk and weight. Greater efficiency could reduce fuel use and pollutant emissions.

None of this progress would happen overnight, Titus acknowledges. Findings emerging from the 2019-2024 research period must be factored into the material and design strategies of manufacturers. Their new products would await certification.

But the grant is a great start. This engineer’s insights at the scale of the atom may reveal huge possibilities for additional materials and industries, possibly leading to new technologies. Also, the NSF anticipates an early-career recipient such as Titus will inform and inspire many others. He is in his second academic year of mentoring seniors at an Indiana public high school near Purdue’s campus. Among students already interested in science and engineering, he says he enthusiastically describes “the cool things we’re doing” that make materials relevant in various endeavors.

Graduate students in the School of Materials Engineering are “coming from all different fields and all different backgrounds,” such as chemical and mechanical expertise. Also, his faculty colleagues contribute to numerous areas of interdisciplinary innovation, including safer re-entry into the atmosphere for space vehicles.

“We’re still a relatively small field,” he acknowledges, “but we’re rapidly growing. People are starting to see more and more the benefit of understanding materials and how to make them—and how to make new ones.”

William G. Schmitt
OnWord: Collaborative Communications