The lab of professor Michelle Pantoya received updates to safety features as well as improvements to increase efficiency and scope of experiments being undertaken.
In just a few short years, Michelle Pantoya's combustion research laboratory within the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering at Texas Tech University has earned a reputation for the tremendous work and discoveries being made involving energetic materials.
The work has been recognized by several branches of the United States military, which has funded numerous research projects by the lab. Pantoya, the J.W. Wright Regents Endowed Chair in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, estimates that about 80 percent of the research conducted in the lab is done for the military.
But as the popularity and success of the lab grew, it became apparent the lab was not suited, both in terms of efficiency or safety, for the growing workload it was undertaking. Texas Tech recognized the need to renovate the lab and approved $400,000 for improvements, which began in January and were completed earlier this month.
"When we took over this space, it had been used for 50-60 years prior to me being here for design classes, a hodgepodge of different types of research projects and not really designed for energetic materials research," Pantoya said. "As quickly as Texas Tech recognized the level of contributions we were making in this lab, they also recognized the need to improve the facility. The college and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety put a plan forward to alleviate that problem and the new design is already being received wonderfully."
In terms of safety, the biggest renovation made to the lab was to relocate the graduate student offices, which were located in the same area where experiments with combustible, potentially hazardous materials were being conducted. Pantoya said the desire university-wide is to give students a space to write or do homework that is outside of the area where research is conducted.
So a fireproof wall was constructed that created two separate rooms, one where experiments are conducted and another for student offices. The office area renovations are still ongoing.
In terms of efficiency, the most important renovation was the installation of a new ventilation system that allows for multiple experiments that might require elimination of various gases to be conducted simultaneously.
Previously, the lab had just one table with a "snorkel" that provided proper ventilation, so students would have to conduct part of their experiment at one station then move it to the ventilation station when needed, and also could not do so while someone else was conducting an experiment that could require the same ventilation space.
"A lot of the safety features that have been added are functional as well," said graduate student Lee Campbell. "It makes it a much more functional space altogether."
Other safety measures taken with the renovations include proper storage facilities for energetic materials, new countertops for the tables that are more resistant to corrosive materials, and new flooring that is less prone to electrostatic discharge, thus reducing the likelihood of the ignition of dangerous, potentially explosive, materials.
"We can generally work with more sensitive materials now, higher velocity impact materials, and we can look at higher energy-bearing materials," said graduate student Kevin Hill. "There's also more potential for more people to work in here more efficiently."
Pantoya said the research conducted in the lab focuses on characterizing new energetic material composites and new formulations. The research includes the manufacturing of energetic formulations, which includes making sure binding agents and explosive components are compatible and can be processed. The lab also characterizes the ignition aspects of materials and the way energy is generated.
In terms of ignition of energetic materials, the lab explores several different methods, from electrostatic discharge sensitivity to impact ignition (dropping material on the ground) and ignition from heat or lasers.
"All these different ways we can introduce energy into the system, we want to see how energetic materials respond to that energy," Pantoya said. "Does it ignite? If so, does it ignite completely? Is the reaction complete? Are we getting all the energy out of the chemical energy stored in these materials? Then, what we can do is optimize the formulation for specific applications."
That is where the government interests come into play and why the lab conducts extensive research for not only various areas in the Department of Defense, but also for the Department of Energy, among others. Private industry also has shown an interest in the research, and the new renovations are already drawing positive comments from potential sources of research funding.
"There is a lot of interest in developing new materials for energy-generating applications, whatever those applications may be," Pantoya said. "This is exactly where our research falls. We do a lot of work for the military that also has some industry components to it. We do research for the oil industry, with blasting, with the airbags in your car for safety. There are a lot of avenues for using these materials."
The future, Pantoya said, is research seeking to harness even more power from the energy that is inherently contained in these energetic materials. That could include such things as additive manufacturing or functionalizing fuel particles to make them more reactive. With the new lab space, she is confident she and her students are just scratching the surface of their research.
"We are thankful to Texas Tech for recognizing the need and moving forward with some of the wonderful renovations," Pantoya said. "They spared no expense, and their full and undivided attention was placed on improving all aspects of our work, and they worked with us wonderfully to do that every step of the way. We are thankful and glad to be Red Raiders."