To some, ceramics is the stuff of art, the ingredient for fashioning vases, figures and other pretty objects. To Nitin Padture, ceramics is an engineer’s putty, a material prized for its conductivity and its resistance to heat.
Padture, incoming professor of engineering, has devoted much of his nearly 30-year career to researching the uses of ceramics. He has come up with several innovations, including a thermal coating to optimize the performance of jet engines and to protect the super-hot turbines in power plants.
“Since I was an undergraduate, I’ve always been interested in ceramics,” said Padture, who was the founding director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Emergent Materials at The Ohio State University before coming to Brown. “I sensed there were a lot of possibilities. It’s such a versatile field, and it can have such a wide range of properties, from being an insulator to a superconductor. It always attracted me, and so I followed it.”
Padture, born in India, grew up on the industry floor and often accompanied his father, a civil engineer, to the foundries he managed, where workers manufactured castings for big companies. “I would watch these enormous machines melt this steel, white hot sparks everywhere. I’ve always been fascinated by these materials. It was the highlight of our summer.”
When he wasn’t at the factory, he tinkered at home. Padture had his own workshop, building motors, generators and telephones. As a boy of 10 or 11, he built a telephone using old-fashioned shaving blades stuck vertically into a hollow box, with a pencil lead balanced between the blades to convert the vibrations to an electrical signal that corresponds to sound. “I could speak into it, and you could hear it in the room next door,” he said.
He graduated to bigger things at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, an institution with which Brown established a multifaceted partnership in 2010. There, Padture discovered ceramics after learning that the school did not offer materials science.
He worked with ceramics ever since. In 2007, Padture and colleagues published a paper showing that zirconium dioxide — synthetic diamonds — could be used to coat jet engine turbines blades, which meant the engines could run at higher temperatures and more efficiently. In another paper, he discovered a new class of ceramic coatings that could protect jet engines from volcanic ash, a worry to the airline industry after a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded European air travel for days last year.
The ceramic coatings also could be used by the power industry, where gas turbines generate 23 percent of the country’s electricity. To operate most efficiently, temperatures need to reach 1,400 degrees Celsius. The ceramic coating prevents the two-story-high gas turbines from melting the metallic components within.
Padture also is investigating graphene, the single-atom thick carbon sheets that are the current darlings of materials science for potential uses in electronics and other fields. He has developed a technique to stamp many graphene sheets onto a substrate at once, in precise locations. The method could usher in high-throughput manufacturing of graphene into computer chips.
“We’re still working on it, but it has the potential to become a viable method for making site-specific graphene sheets,” Padture said. He expects to collaborate with engineering professors Huajian Gao, Robert Hurt, Brian Sheldon, and Vivek Shenoy. “That was a draw — people at Brown who work in areas similar to mine — and I can bring something to the table.”
When not teaching or in his lab, Padture likely will be cruising the countryside on his cherished motorcycle, an Aprilia Futura RST 1000. Chances are neither his wife, Sherilyn, nor his son, Siddharth, an undergraduate at Boston University, will be riding along. “She doesn’t mind me doing this, but she’s not that keen on it,” he said.
By Richard Lewis