It’s impossible to see with the naked eye, but metals at high temperatures show a behavior similar to soap bubbles– and understanding how that works is central to the research Fadi Abdeljawad is conducting at Clemson University.

Abdeljawad, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing theoretical and computational models that explain how metals respond when exposed to outside forces, such as heat and stress.

Fadi Abdeljawad talks with graduate students about their work in his office in the Fluor Daniel Engineering Innovation Building.

Fadi Abdeljawad talks with graduate students about their work in his office in the Fluor Daniel Engineering Innovation Building.

His work could help engineers develop special alloys for a wide range of applications from aerospace and automotive to biomedical and energy.

Abdeljawad’s research is highly specialized, bringing together together concepts from solid-state physics, applied mathematics, materials science and engineering. And it has served him well.

Less than ten months into his academic career, Abdeljawad received notice that he won the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

The award comes with $5,000 in seed money that will be matched by Clemson to launch a new research project.

Abdeljawad’s research deals with metals at the nanoscale. Imagine plucking a hair from your head and slicing it lengthwise about 1,000 times, and you’ll have an idea of how small that is.

At that size, metals are made up of many interlocking crystals, also called grains. What you can see with the naked eye is the collective behavior of those crystals, Abdeljawad said.

When a metal is heated or stressed, some of its crystals grow, while others shrink. It’s a phenomenon that is similar to what you see in soap bubbles, he said.

“Let’s say you’re in a bathtub– some bubbles will grow, while others will shrink,” he said. “It’s a surface-tension phenomenon, and it’s the same physics we see in metals, albeit the behavior in metals is richer due to their crystalline nature.”

With the seed money he is receiving as part of his award, Abdeljawad is studying how metal crystals can be kept as small as possible.

“The reason is, it turns out a lot of the mechanical properties are drastically enhanced when the crystals are small,” he said.

Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research at Clemson, said that Abdeljawad’s research is providing sustainable solutions for the nation in advanced materials, transportation and energy.

“This award will help enrich the research and professional growth of Dr. Abdeljawad, while helping him pursue other funding avenues,” Karanfil said. “I congratulate him and thank ORAU for its support.”

Abdeljawad received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees with a primary focus on theoretical and computational materials science from Princeton University. He worked as a senior member of the technical staff in the Computational Materials and Data Science Department at Sandia National Laboratories before joining Clemson’s mechanical engineering faculty in fall 2018.

Atul Kelkar, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and D.W. Reynolds Distinguished Professor, congratulated Abdeljawad.

“The award is a testament to the merit of his proposal and the unique combination of specialties that Dr. Abdeljawad brings to his research,” Kelkar said. “This is a well-deserved honor.”