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Camilo Duarte, a senior undergraduate mechanical engineering student at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, is working on a nanotechnology research project at Purdue under the supervision of Marisol Koslowski, associate professor of mechanical engineering. The project focuses on the effect of the variability of the grain size in polycrystalline materials, which are the materials that Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) are made of. These devices are widely used in communication, radar and military applications. Photo provided.

Connecting With Colombia Purdue’s research collaboration with foreign government continues to build on win-win partnership

By William Meiners

Connecting With Colombia

Author: William Meiners
Subtitle: Purdue’s research collaboration with foreign government continues to build on win-win partnership
Magazine Section: Engagement
Article Type: Feature
Feature CSS: background-position: center 40%;
In 2010, a landmark agreement known as the Colombia-Purdue Institute (CPI) introduced a new avenue for a research university to collaborate with government and nongovernment agencies in another country. Four years into the partnership, the institute is enabling a cross-cultural approach that is addressing some of the most pressing engineering challenges of our time.

In 2010, a landmark agreement known as the Colombia-Purdue Institute (CPI) introduced a new avenue for a research university to collaborate with government and nongovernment agencies in another country. Four years into the partnership, the institute is enabling a cross-cultural approach that is addressing some of the most pressing engineering challenges of our time.

From its core beginnings within the College of Engineering, CPI is now fostering collaborations all over campus while creating an intellectual pipeline from South America to West Lafayette and vice versa. To date, some 30 PhD students, many funded by the Colombian government, have enrolled at Purdue, and more than 60 Purdue faculty from 26 departments in six colleges have participated in CPI. And many promising research collaborations have been created.

Bio-inspired research

Pablo Zavattieri, an associate professor of civil engineering with a courtesy appointment in mechanical engineering, works with three Colombian PhD students in his lab. One of those students, Nicolas Guarin, is funded by Zavattieri’s NSF CAREER Award. Guarin is working with Zavattieri on the mechanical investigation and biomimicry of naturally occurring, high-performance materials. 

In collaboration with Juan David Gomez, a professor of civil engineering at EAFIT University in Medellin, Zavattieri and his team are looking at the remarkable properties of a naturally occurring composite material inside the dactyl club of the mantis shrimp. “We want to determine if the periodic and hierarchical structure of this material is capable of filtering some damaging waves,” Zavattieri says. “And if so, we want to learn the design guidelines to improve fiber-reinforced composite materials for a myriad of applications. These could range from aeronautics to sports for protection and damage mitigation.”

In another project funded by Colciencias, Colombia’s Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation, Zavattieri is working with researchers from the Universidad de Antioquia to create models of soft tissues and skin that can be used for prosthetic applications. “In particular,” he says, “we are looking at amputees, but this could also be used wherever the skin is in contact with engineering materials, such as wearable electronics.”

Empowering solar power

Bryan Boudouris, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, is working on the discovery of new polymer, or plastic, materials for flexible solar cells. Working with engineers at the Universidad de Antioquia, Boudouris says the team has helped develop new materials that should absorb a larger portion of the sunlight that strikes the earth than what current polymers can capture.

“When we combine these polymers with carbon nanotubes, we anticipate that we will have very high-performing devices,” Boudouris says. “If these devices reach around 15 percent efficiency, they will be cost-competitive with many other kinds of energy conversion technologies. So there’s strong hope that we can have low-cost, thin, flexible and lightweight solar cells in the near future.”

One of the chemists in his lab is Frank Ramirez Rodriguez, a graduate visiting scholar from the Universidad de Antioquia. “Frank brings a number of polymer synthesis skills to the lab,” Boudouris says. “In turn, we’ve helped to teach him the solar cell fabrication process and testing process required to evaluate the devices. He’s been a model student for the program and the conduit for an exchange between the two institutions.”

As for the benefits of the exchange, Boudouris explains, “Making new molecules is a difficult process. Bringing perspectives from different institutions, cultures and scientific backgrounds helps our team to be more imaginative. If we can imagine the polymer we want to make, we can usually find a way to make it.”            

Best of both worlds

Juan Diego Velásquez is a Colombian with three Purdue degrees. Now the managing director of strategic initiatives in the College of Engineering, Velásquez (BSIE ’98, MSIE ’03, PhD ’09) is helping students through some of the same doors he stepped through 20 years ago. “From a personal perspective, the CPI is one of the most rewarding projects I work on,” he says. “I’m an expatriate, no longer living in my country. But I feel like I’m part of my country by working with some of these very bright students who come to Purdue.”

 

The Colombia 2025 vision was inspired by former Colombia Vice President Francisco Santos’ idea for catapulting that country into a leadership position in science and technology in Latin America. Purdue University and the government of Colombia have established an unprecedented partnership focused upon preparing Colombia’s most accomplished students to become tomorrow’s most accomplished researchers.