Masahiro Ishigami, an associate professor of physics, was recently awarded a two-year, $332,552 grant from the US National Science Foundation in recognition of the potential of his work to fill a knowledge gap in tribology – the study of friction, lubrication and wear.
According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Energy report, up to 1.6% of annual U.S. GDP (about $300 billion) is lost due to friction-induced wear. Scrap tires are just one everyday example of this type of loss.
As tribology, the science of friction, research advances, nanoscale friction has become a key piece of the puzzle of how to eliminate or reduce such loss. However, nanoscale friction research has not yet been able to work with the velocities of real mechanical systems. It is this so-called “speed gap” that Ishigami’s research will tackle.
Ishigami’s long-standing areas of expertise are scanning tunneling microscopy and spectroscopy, both of which enable precise measurement of the variables involved in friction. For this project, he will work with Ashlie Martini, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Merced, who specializes in the theory and modeling of friction. They will build on a previous collaboration that confirmed the existence of ultra-low friction with gold nanocrystals on graphene at high speeds ranging from half an inch to three feet per second.
The duo are currently working on a technique to measure the friction of individual nanocrystals at speeds used for mechanical bearings – used to disperse stress in nearly all machinery – and other key applications.
Ishigami says the ability to conduct such innovative research is why he decided to study physics and major in nanoscience.
As an undergraduate at MIT, he remembers not being sure that physics was for him. An advanced physics lab finally cemented his career choice. There, Ishigami began to feel confident in his ability to “do” science.
“We had experiments set up, but I was able to make them open,” he says.
To give his students the same opportunity, he spent years developing an advanced physics lab course for undergraduate students at UCF. Ishigami takes pride in how the course encourages potential researchers to design their own experiments, make full use of the instruments, and learn from their mistakes.
In recognition of the value of hands-on experience for all students, especially those with an interest in science, he included a high school teacher training program as part of his NSF proposal. Now that it’s funded, he hopes it will help Orange County teachers energize students and let local young people know that they too can contribute to the cutting edge of science.