Dunn awarded grant for hydrogel surface study


Taylor Tucker, MechSE Communications

MechSE Assistant Professor Alison C. Dunn recently won a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for her proposal, “Discovering the mechanisms of hydrogel surface weakening and wear under applied sliding conditions.” 
Awarded by the Materials Engineering and Processing program within the division of Civil, Mechanical, and Manufacturing Innovation, the grant aims to study how hydrogels break down when experiencing friction from sliding against other materials. Hydrogels include water and polymer as integral parts of their structure, so they can’t be assumed to wear in the same ways. 
“We will be mapping out how the surfaces of hydrated polymers, like hydrogels, evolve as they experience surface slip,” said Dunn. “We will be conducting controlled wear experiments and analyzing mechanical and chemical changes in the surface.”
Hydrogels are often used for biomedical devices such as catheters, as well as in applications such as prosthetics and synthetic soft tissues.  
“The award supports the fundamental discovery of connections between the hydrogel structure, sliding conditions, and surface durability,” said Dunn. “These connections will result in new mechanical design guidelines for manufacturing hydrogels, impacting health and industrial sectors.”
Two graduate students and at least one undergraduate will be working with Dunn on the project in her Materials Tribology Laboratory, and they will also use instruments in the Materials Research Lab.  
She said her overarching research goal is “to discover fundamental mechanisms of friction, lubrication, and wear with an eye toward the creation of design rules for the soft hydrated materials of the future.” She also hopes her work will contribute to increasing the interest of underrepresented minorities in materials and mechanics concepts.