All Brawn AND Brains

You may know Taylor Sparks as a University of Utah materials science and engineering assistant professor. But earlier this month, he was Taylor Sparks, reality TV guest star.

Sparks appeared in an episode of the Discovery Channel television show, “Diesel Brothers,” a popular reality program based on his brother’s successful truck modification shop, DieselSellerz, in Woods Cross.

In the latest episode, which aired March 13, his burly, bearded brother, Dave “Heavy D” Sparks, wants to modify a Ford truck so it can perform a somersault, a feat that has eluded him before. So Dave enlists his brother Taylor to come up with the necessary physics to make it happen.

Based on some equations, Taylor, who earned a doctorate in applied physics from Harvard University, deduces that his brother’s crew has to find the center of gravity, build a round roll cage, and use hydraulics and extra weight to force the truck to roll forward.

“We’re fighting physics,” Dave Sparks says in the episode. “Luckily, we’ve got a scientist on our side.”

Click on the video below to see if they make it (they try the stunt in front of Taylor’s engineering class).

Click here to watch the full episode (cable subscription required).

Utah’s Need for Engineers

Utah’s growth in the technology sector continues to skyrocket, and engineering colleges around the state are doing everything they can to meet the high demand for engineers.

In the first six months of 2016, Utah had the greatest percentage increase of technology-related jobs in the U.S. with a growth of 7.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number of tech-sector jobs in Utah grew from about 46,000 to 70,000 from 2005 to 2015, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (see graphic above).

Meanwhile on the front end, the number of students seeking engineering degrees has grown even more rapidly. At the University of Utah, for example, the number of first-year students enrolled in the College of Engineering has grown 178 percent in the last 10 years, according to the College.

“In some areas of the state it’s just massive growth,” Val Hale, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said about the growing number of technology companies in Utah. “There’s no doubt that technology is playing a key role in our economy moving forward.”

As a result, 81 Utah companies led by the Utah Technology Council have endorsed Utah Rep. Val Peterson’s, R-Orem, $5-million Request for Appropriation to aid the state’s engineering and computer science programs in dealing with escalating student demand. These additional ongoing funds would add capacity to the statewide system and expand the workforce needed by high-tech companies. Since 2014, the number of engineering and computer science degrees awarded by the statewide system have increased by 29 percent thanks to prior state investments.

“Fortunately, the number of qualified Utah students who want to study engineering and computer science is growing as fast as the demand for graduates. In 2005, 7 percent of the U’s freshman class wanted to go into the College of Engineering — this year, it was 19 percent,” said Richard B. Brown, dean of the U’s College of Engineering. “We need to grow the capacity so that we can educate them for these exciting, creative jobs of the 21st century.”

Being able to tap into a bigger pool of qualified graduating engineers from the state would certainly help Starr Fowler. The senior vice president for human resources at Provo-based smart-home services company, Vivint, said they are desperately looking for new engineers to accommodate their massive growth.

“We are growing a lot,” she said. “We have double-digit revenue growth year over year.”

Currently, Vivint has some 35 job openings for software and hardware engineers — not to replace employees who are leaving, but to fill new slots for the company’s expansion. Fowler said they are looking for qualified people ranging from software developers to mechanical engineers who help design their home security and smart-home devices. She also said Vivint is not the only company along the Salt Lake Valley with an appetite for more engineers.

“It’s huge,” she said of the expanding technology sector from Ogden to Provo, known as “Silicon Slopes.” “All you have to do is drive down I-15 to the Point of the Mountain and the other side and just see. Every other week there’s a new building up or a new sign with a new company. The growth is substantial.”

And Utah is not starving for just software developers, GOED’s Hale said. An expanding manufacturing sector, including in areas such as composite materials, has created a need for mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers among others.

“Manufacturing continues to grow in our state, and it’s very engineering-dependent,” he said. “We’ve experienced significant growth, and manufacturing is involved in almost all of our clusters from life sciences to aerospace. They all rely heavily on manufacturing, which relies heavily on engineering.”

Hale added that Utah continues to be an attractive target for business startups thanks to the valley’s proximity to outdoor recreation, the state’s quality of life and low cost of living. Consequently, that has made these companies more competitive when it comes to filling their workforce, and median salaries for technology jobs have risen. The average salary for a software engineer in Utah, for example, is more than $95,000, according to

“When a lot of the companies reach maturity and are purchased, they stay here, like Omniture. Those jobs stay here instead of migrating elsewhere, and that creates an ecosystem that thrives,” Hale said. “It’s a good place for businesses to come and take root and grow.”

Anil Virkar Named NAI Fellow

University of Utah materials science and engineering Distinguished Professor Anil Virkar, who has been with the U for more than 43 years, can add yet another honor to his list — he has been named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

“I’m extremely honored to be named to NAI. Having worked at Utah for 43 years with people like Prof. Ron Gordon and Prof. Ivan Cutler helped me get off the ground,” he said. “I’m also proud of the opportunities I have had here in Utah and the innovative research that is done here. Utah has been ahead of other states in the commercialization of research, which has helped me a lot as well.”

Virkar is one of 175 Fellows named to the academy from more than 135 institutions, according to an NAI announcement Tuesday, Dec. 13. He is the only one from the University of Utah to be named in this year’s group.

Selection to the academy is accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated “a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society,” according to NAI. The 2016 Fellows will be inducted April 6 as part of the Sixth Annual Conference of the National Academy of Inventors at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston.

Virkar received his undergraduate degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in 1973. Shortly after, he arrived at the University of Utah first as a post-doctoral fellow and then became professor where he has remained his entire career.

During his time here, Virkar has co-founded several companies, including Colorado-based Versa Power Systems and Materials and Systems Research, Inc., in Salt Lake City. Most recently, he co-founded Nano-Oxides, Inc., for the synthesis of nanosize oxide powders. His main research is focused on fuel cells, batteries, multi-species transport and the fabrication of ceramics.

Virkar also was elected to be Fellow of ASM International, the world’s largest association of materials-centric engineers and scientists, and he was recently named for the H. Kent Bowen Endowed Professorship in Materials Science and Engineering.

He joins University of Utah College of Engineering Dean Richard B. Brown and electrical and computer engineering professor Cynthia Furse, who also is the U’s associate vice president for research, as faculty from the College who have been named NAI Fellows.

With the election of the 2016 class there are now 757 NAI Fellows, representing 229 research universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes.

Lundgren and Stephanz Named MSE Outstanding Seniors

FT. DOUGLAS OFFICER’S CLUB, SALT LAKE CITY — On the evening of Thursday, April 7th, 2016, the Materials Science & Engineering Department assembled for the 16th annual MSE Senior Banquet & Poster Presentations at the Ft. Douglas Officer’s Club on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

The poster presentation portion of the evening is the fulfillment of the 18 graduating senior’s requirements for MSE 5098/5099. Over the past year students were broken up into eight groups and worked with faculty advisors to formulate their senior research and design projects. They reported their research and findings during the evenings festivities. 

The top three poster presentations were recoginized by the departments — first place was won by Jason Dalton and Garrett Meeks; second place was Carl Luft, Kyle Campbell and Zixiao Liu; and, third place was Brandon Day and Kristina Lundgren (see bar on left for project title information). All senior posters will be on display in the MSE Department for the following year. 

The program spent the evening honoring both Kristina Lundgren (BS ’16) and Megan Stephanz (BS/MS ’17) as the Outstanding Graduating Seniors of 2016. Typically the department honors one graduating senior, but the caliber of graduating seniors made it difficult to chose just one student to honor.

The 2017 Materials Science & Engineering Senior Banquet & Poster Presentation is slated for Friday, April 7, 2017, location TBA.

Dr. Zang Group helps sniff out a dangerous vapor

Alkane fuel is a key ingredient in combustible material such as gasoline, airplane fuel, oil — even a homemade bomb. Yet it’s difficult to detect and there are no portable scanners available that can sniff out the odorless and colorless vapor.

But University of Utah engineers have developed a new type of fiber material for a handheld scanner that can detect small traces of alkane fuel vapor, a valuable advancement that could be an early-warning signal for leaks in an oil pipeline, an airliner, or for locating a terrorist’s explosive.

Their discovery was published online Friday, March 25, in the American Chemical Society’s journal, ACS Sensors. The team is led by University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ling Zang, who also is a faculty member with the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) economic development initiative.

Currently, there are no small, portable chemical sensors to detect alkane fuel vapor because it is not chemically reactive. The conventional way to detect it is with a large oven-sized instrument in a lab.

“It’s not mobile and very heavy,” Zang says of the larger instrument. “There’s no way it can be used in the field. Imagine trying to detect the leak from a gas valve or on the pipelines. You ought to have something portable.”

So Zang’s team developed a type of fiber composite that involves two nanofibers transferring electrons from one to the other.

“These are two materials that interact well together by having electrons transferring from one to another,” says Ben Bunes, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Utah’s materials science and engineering department. “When an alkane is present, it sticks in between the two materials, blocking the electron transfer between the two nanofibers.”

That kind of interaction would then signal the detector that the alkane vapor is present.

Read the full press release at the U News Center.

Copeland wins GELS award

SALT LAKE CITY — Materials Science & Engineering student, Jeffrey Copeland (B.S., ’17) was awarded a Governor’s Energy Leadership Scholars (GELS) award from the state of Utah. Copeland is a student in the Professor Taylor Sparks research group. 

Copeland will use his award to work along with group members — Max Gallant, Carina Hahn and Nic Flinner who founded Electrochrome LLC., to develop inexpensive films that can be applied to windows (see left bar for more information). 

One potential application for this technology are “smart windows” in residential and commercial buildings that can be programmed to reflect more sunlight to keep the interior cooler during hot times of the day. 

This is the third student that Dr. Sparks advises who has recieved this award. Leila Ghadbiega (Ph.D. candidate) and Matthew Judge (B.S., ’16) were receipents of the award for the 2014-15 academic year.

Congratulations Jeffrey and the Prof. Sparks research group!

Engineering Material Magic

University of Utah engineers have discovered a new kind of 2D semiconducting material for electronics that opens the door for much speedier computers and smartphones that also consume a lot less power.

The semiconductor, made of the elements tin and oxygen, or tin monoxide (SnO), is a layer of 2D material only one atom thick, allowing electrical charges to move through it much faster than conventional 3D materials such as silicon. This material could be used in transistors, the lifeblood of all electronic devices such as computer processors and graphics processors in desktop computers and mobile devices. The material was discovered by a team led by University of Utah materials science and engineering associate professor Ashutosh Tiwari. A paper describing the research was published online Monday, Feb. 15, in the journal, Advanced Electronic Materials. The paper, which also will be the cover story on the printed version of the journal, was co-authored by University of Utah materials science and engineering doctoral students K. J. Saji and Kun Tian, and Michael Snure of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Research Lab near Dayton, Ohio.

Transistors and other components used in electronic devices are currently made of 3D materials such as silicon and consist of multiple layers on a glass substrate. But the downside to 3D materials is that electrons bounce around inside the layers in all directions.

The benefit of 2D materials, which is an exciting new research field that has opened up only about five years ago, is that the material is made of one layer the thickness of just one or two atoms. Consequently, the electrons “can only move in one layer so it’s much faster,” says Tiwari.

While researchers in this field have recently discovered new types of 2D material such as graphene, molybdenun disulfide and borophene, they have been materials that only allow the movement of N-type, or negative, electrons. In order to create an electronic device, however, you need semiconductor material that allows the movement of both negative electrons and positive charges known as “holes.” The tin monoxide material discovered by Tiwari and his team is the first stable P-type 2D semiconductor material ever in existence.

“Now we have everything — we have P-type 2D semiconductors and N-type 2D semiconductors,” he says. “Now things will move forward much more quickly.”

Read the full press release at the U News Center.