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$500,000 defense grant to fund materials research computer cluster

A physics professor at the College of William and Mary recently was awarded $500,000 to buy a new computer cluster to study the qualities of piezoelectrics—materials that convert energy from one form to another.

The money will be used to install a high-performance computer cluster at the Center for Piezoelectrics by Design (CPD), a multi-institution collaborative based at William and Mary. Henry Krakauer, professor of physics at William and Mary, is director of the CPD. Krakauer’s funding was part of a slate of $41.2 million in research-equipment grants announced by the U.S. Department of Defense under its Defense University Research Instrumentation Program.

Piezoelectrics are a common component in military applications, such as transducers for naval sonar systems, in which the piezoelectric properties of the materials convert sound waves into electricity and vice versa. There also are many civilian uses of piezoelectrics, including transducers for medical ultrasound, acousto-optic modulators in telecommunications lasers, sensors in automobile engines and auto-focus piezoelectric motors in cameras.

There are a vast number of alloys, ceramics and other materials that exhibit piezoelectric properties, but some work better than others in various applications. Traditional evaluation of piezoelectric materials has been based on time-consuming and inefficient trial and error processes, but the mission of the Center for Piezoelectrics by Design has been to develop highly efficient computational techniques of evaluating piezoelectric materials. Krakauer, and his co-workers, have received significant amounts of defense funding since 2001 to develop computational methods for designing advanced materials.

Science and math developed by CPD researchers and others are advanced enough to give researchers the ability to predict the performance of materials. The recent $500,000 grant, awarded from the Office of Naval Research, will allow the CPD to install a specialized computer cluster to implement its testing methods. The new equipment will increase the CPD’s computing power tenfold.

“We were delighted to hear the news from the Department of Defense,” said Dennis Manos, William and Mary’s vice provost for research. “The infrastructure for Henry’s important work, which has generated more than $7 million in funding over the past five years for the College, will now be renewed and improved, so that he and his colleagues can press the boundaries of computation even farther.”

Some of the immediate technological challenges being tackled at the CPD will result in increasing the performance, effectiveness and longevity of naval electronics. In addition to the technological advances, the CPD also produces many highly trained graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.