Nathan Jackson, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is receiving Department of Defense (DoD) funding to develop new functional thin films that could be utilized in microsystem sensors and actuator applications, including wearable technology, autonomous vehicles, robotics, energy harvesting, and biomedical sensing.

Nathan Jackson
Nathan Jackson

He is the single principal investigator of “Multifunctional High Performance Smart Thin Films for Microsystem Applications,” an $800,000, four-year project funded by the Army Research Office, a directorate of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory.

The project will investigate novel manufacturing methods to create both flexible polymer-based functional materials as well as novel polycrystalline films that are microfabrication compatible. Jackson will work on developing materials that could have long-term impacts on device performance.

Jackson said the overarching goal of this project is to develop a new class of stackable multifunctional thin films with enhanced performance that are compatible with standard microfabrication manufacturing methods.

“We are trying to develop new multifunctional thin films to be used in microsystem applications to enhance performance,” Jackson said.

The project focuses on developing both piezoelectric and magnetostriction materials, in addition to multifunctional materials. Magnetostriction is the phenomenon that causes a material to be mechanically strained when exposed to a magnetic field, whereas piezoelectricity is the phenomenon whereby a material is mechanically strained when exposed to an electric field.

Currently, both transduction mechanisms are extensively used in microsystems devices for DoD applications such as ultrasound transducers, sensors (used for gas, humidity, acceleration, vibration, medical, magnetic field), robotics, communications and propulsion systems.

Jackson said that these flexible and stretchable functional materials are in high demand for applications in wearable technology for infantry members, robotic e-skin, sensors/actuators for autonomous vehicles and drones, underwater sonar, and bio and chemical sensors. However, most current flexible functional materials currently are not microfabrication compatible, which limits their usage.

Jackson, along with a postdoctoral researcher, will work on developing solutions to two main challenges surrounding functional piezoelectric and magnetostriction materials associated with thin films: low functional properties (both piezoelectric and magnetic properties are significantly reduced in thin films) and microfabrication compatibility, as most high-performance functional materials are not compatible with standard microfabrication manufacturing.

Jackson — who is the director of the UNM Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering program, an interdisciplinary graduate program based in the School of Engineering — said he would like to provide opportunities to use this project to train and inspire underrepresented students at all levels who may be interested in pursuing STEM fields, especially materials science and microsystems.

The project is funded through the Department of Defense’s Research and Education Program for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions Basic Research Funding.