Research & Innovation

Living in a (Polymer) Material World

Pinar Akcora’s cutting-edge chemical engineering and materials science research is helping create multi-functional polymer systems for real-world applications

This month, Stevens Institute of Technology will host its fifth annual Introduce a Girl to Engineering! Day event at Brensinger Elementary School in Jersey City. Throughout February, we’re also sharing the stories of some of our female faculty members and students, and how they are critical to our mission to inspire, nurture, and educate leaders in tomorrow's technology-centric environment while contributing to the solution of the most challenging problems of our time.

These notable female researchers are fundamental contributors to the achievements that earned Stevens the Bronze Award in the American Society for Engineering Education’s inaugural Diversity Recognition Program for helping us make “significant, measurable progress in increasing the diversity, inclusion, and degree attainment outcomes.”

The building blocks of tomorrow’s high-tech materials

From silk, proteins, rubber, pectin, and DNA, to fuel cells, polymers are indispensable to daily living.

These natural or man-made chemical compounds composed of long, repeating units of molecules that, bonded together, are uniquely useful in countless applications.

For Pinar Akcora, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science (CEMS) at Stevens Institute of Technology, designing functional polymers is exciting because of their powerful potential to solve real-world challenges, such as making fuel cells more efficient. Akcora, who is a National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner, runs the CEMS Soft Materials Lab.

“We investigate the behavior inside polymer systems,” explained Akcora. “We make and synthesize multi-functional polymers in bulk. Then, we not only conduct complex nanomolecular experiments to understand how molecules vibrate and the dynamic behavior they demonstrate, which is important for ion conduction, but we also work to understand how these new materials flow. With this knowledge, we can design materials with specific mechanical, conductive, and dynamic properties for use in a variety of chemical engineering applications.”

She also makes polymer nanocomposites, mixing polymers and inorganic particles together to create completely new materials with dramatically improved properties.

“We’re seeking to control the dispersion of nanoparticles in a system, going beyond traditional mechanical processes to play with the actual chemistry of the particles so they disperse better,” Akcora said. “We work to design materials that not only have good reinforcement behavior, but also have interesting thermal properties, so that the resulting material is both flexible and tough.”

Akcora and her team have earned two new grants last year from the National Science Foundation to continue their research into understanding this thermal stiffening behavior through particle dispersions and ion conducting polyelectrolytes.

Happiness is homemade—and so are these polymers

For Akcora, the key to this innovation is that she’s not simply studying commercialized polymers —she actually makes the polymers from scratch.

“I design the material, I design the system, I study the behavior, then I try to build something useful for real-life applications,” she said. “That’s what makes my group unique. We go beyond pure chemistry, physics, and engineering to truly study and understand what happens when many molecules come together. We are developing innovative designs and alternative materials that can function better than anything that exists today. This can only be possible when you can design the molecules in such as way that they can behave the way you want them to. You have to know the chemistry, and know what you want the molecular design to be.”

Akcora also enjoys stretching her boundaries to get involved with projects—such as making novel materials for energy applications for use in fuel cell membranes—that are beyond the traditional realms of her expertise.

“I’m not a battery energy person,” she said, “but with my background, I can apply my research to creating systems (electrolytes) that can conduct ions better, to improve how fuel cells operate for next-generation energy applications.”

She is also eager to encourage the next generation of engineers.

“My father is an electrical engineer, and although he was supportive, he actually wanted me to be a doctor!” she recalled. “I’m glad I chose to follow him into the engineering field. I am also grateful that I have had great mentors. Students, especially girls, shouldn’t be concerned that the engineering field will be too difficult, or that it will affect their ability to have a life and a family. It won’t. If it’s something they love, then they should just go for it! And they should make sure they balance their professional co-op experiences with time in the research lab, to get the full benefits and explore all their options during their undergraduate and graduate experiences.”