Nanomanufacturing professor joins MechSE faculty


Meredith Staub

This is the first semester at the University of Illinois for assistant professor Sameh Tawfick, a new member of the MechSE faculty. His research is in scalable nanomanufacturing: a field that bridges the gap between manufacturing research and nanomaterial science.

"There’s been a myriad of recent discoveries of new types of nanomaterials and individual nanostructures with outstanding electrical and mechanical properties," Tawfick said. "We as mechanical engineers work on bringing those lab-scale materials to large-scale production and applications."

The central issue with trying to apply nanomaterials to large-scale applications is that the properties of individual nanostructures don't always match the properties of millions of them in bulk. Tawfick's research therefore seeks a fundamental understanding of how these properties scale from miniscule structures—with diameters that can be 1000 times smaller than that of a human hair—to integrated computer chips, batteries, or the wings of an airplane. He and his group also invent new processes to use nano-building blocks in large production systems.

Tawfick received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Cairo University in Egypt. Between those degrees he worked in Basel, Switzerland as a design engineer for pharmaceutical equipment. He then came to the United States to earn his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor before becoming a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

For his Ph.D. research, Tawfick developed a process to manufacture multifunctional carbon nanotube surfaces and fibers using capillary forces. Capillary forces act on the surfaces of liquids, and are what enable certain insects to walk on the surfaces of ponds and lakes.

"These forces are not as weak as we tend to think; and they can perform manufacturing work," Tawfick said. "At the nanoscale they have two advantages: their magnitude can deform solids, and their direction can be locally self-controlled. This means that those liquid molecules can be programmed to do a specific mechanical job at very small scales. By simply submerging a large surface having millions of sparse nanotubes in a liquid, and drying it under controlled conditions, capillary forces can organize the nanostructures into more robustly integrated assemblies with enhanced bulk properties."

Tawfick is also part of the MechSE team implementing a new competition in ME370, known among the students as "the dart project," where students design and build a mechanism to throw darts at a dart board. In parallel, he is developing a new 400-level nanomanufacturing class, which he intends to offer next year. The class will cover the fundamental principles and challenges of scalable nanotechnologies including self-assembly, electro-hydrodynamic jetting, nano-molding and imprinting.

"I learn by making," he said, "so I am planning for this class to have hands-on activities."

Part of what drew Tawfick to Illinois, he says, was available resources for micro- and nano-research, and above all the pioneering faculty in these fields.