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Using supercharged material science in an operational environment

Professor Jacob Jones’s work in dielectrics and piezoelectrics sparks the interest of Sandia National Laboratories.

Jacob Jones
Jacob Jones, Kobe Steel Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State, with a graduate student at the Titan Microscope on Centennial Campus.

NC State recently signed an official agreement to partner with Sandia National Laboratories, enabling students and faculty to collaborate with the science and engineering research lab to help address issues of national interest.

Partnering with Sandia offers beneficial insight for students at NC State, and Jacob Jones has witnessed it firsthand.

“The ability for Ph.D. students and undergraduate students to see that environment and to see what a scientist can do in that environment is eye-opening,” says Jones, a Kobe Steel Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State.

Jones is also co-principal investigator of the grant that supports the Center for Dielectrics and Piezoelectrics (CDP). CDP, a material science research collaboration between NC State and Penn State, is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and membership dues. Member companies and governmental laboratories like Sandia are able to vote on proposed research projects that are pitched by principal investigators at both universities.

“[Through CDP], we get a sense of what these labs and industries are interested in, and then we write research proposals to address their needs,” Jones says.

For example, the research coming from the CDP sparked Sandia’s interest because dielectric material stores an electrical charge and is the primary material in devices called capacitors, which are commonly used in pulsed power technologies like Sandia’s Z-machine. Dielectric materials could be used to improve power electronics as well as other national security and energy applications of interest to Sandia. Outside of national security, dielectrics may improve public transportation, Jones says, like electric buses that recharge instantly at a bus stop, and are important materials in the development of the 5G cellular networks.

“CDP and Sandia are integrating capacitors into the world in new ways,” Jones says. “We’re contributing to the next generation of electronics.”

The partnership benefits Sandia, too, says Elizabeth Paisley, who earned her Ph.D. in materials science from NC State. Paisley is a manager at Sandia and serves as the technical liaison for Sandia’s membership with CDP. Additionally, she serves as the deputy campus executive to help broaden the research partnerships and talent pipeline to the laboratories through the agreement.

“One of the benefits of working with CDP is that we interact with the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Paisley says. “Through the meetings, and resulting collaborations, scientists at Sandia build relationships with undergraduate and graduate students. Research relationships last your entire life, and we are always thrilled to have the chance to build those early on and work together as students start their professional careers.”

Story by Katherine Kershaw

While growing up, an interest in military aviation developed naturally for Giovanni Esteves, whose father worked as an airline pilot. Eventually his brother followed in their dad’s footsteps to become a commercial pilot, while Esteves became a defense-related research scientist. He attended graduate school in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State and knew from the beginning he wanted to use his education to work in national defense. Through Professor Jacob Jones, Esteves collaborated with the Army Research Lab during his Ph.D. After graduating in 2017, he accepted a postdoctoral position at Sandia National Laboratories, which turned into a full-time position as a research and development electronics engineer.

What has surprised you about your career path thus far?
How easily your research can be used to enable an application, help generate new ideas, or solve problems in high-level projects. I think in graduate school we are often so focused on the intricate details of our research or the technical approach to a problem that it’s easy to overlook the impact of the work and the pathways it can open. The amount of interdisciplinary research at Sandia is quite substantial, so the opportunities to contribute are countless and these opportunities allow researchers to understand how their work impacts broader efforts and even build expertise outside of their field. Opportunities such as these are where I have experienced the greatest growth since it allows me to develop a wider breadth of knowledge while contributing my ideas to aid in completing project tasks. In my case, my interactions with radio frequency (RF) communications groups have allowed me to aid in the development of piezoelectric RF filters while learning pertinent concepts in electrical engineering. However, this knowledge took time to develop and is constantly being built upon.

What is one obstacle you faced and how did you overcome it?
Branching out into applied research and becoming well-versed in a different area was challenging but rewarding. I came to Sandia with specialized knowledge in the structure-property relationships of ferroelectric thin films, and during my time at Sandia I learned and built devices that used these materials. This journey involved spending a great deal of time reading books on acoustic wave microelectromechanical systems and RF engineering in addition to reading about applications involving the fabricated devices. The process of learning a new area of expertise was a critical foundation that was generated during the process of earning a Ph.D., with both NC State and Professor Jones being key to my success.

This post was originally published in Office of Research and Innovation.