Honors mechanical engineering student Rachel McAfee began undergraduate research in the very first term of her first year. Now, two years and a conference publication later, she’ll spend the summer at the US Army Research Laboratory working on laser defense weapon technology research.
“I was very fortunate to meet my research advisor, Dr. Joshua Gess, in fall of my freshman year at an URSA Engage research mixer,” Rachel says. “I was very interested in research that could still applied to an issue in the electronics industry. Dr. Gess suggested looking into how datacenters can be cooled with a two-phase fluidic system.” After her time with URSA Engage finished, Rachel received a Mechanical, Industrial, Manufacturing Engineering (MIME) Strategic Excellence award to continue her research.
“I really developed a passion for research – it’s what keeps me in my program and what makes me excited for my career,” Rachel says. “Due to this passion I worked hard to run the project start to finish and write and publish a paper on laser induced fluorescence of dielectric fluids – something that has great applications to nuclear science and to determining fluid temperatures without disrupting any of the natural flow.” Rachel went on to present her work to experts in thermal design at ITherm 2019, a conference in her field.
This summer, Rachel will be working in a new area as she expands from fluid heat transfer into phase change materials, particularly with applications to directed energy weapon design. Phase change materials are organic or metallic compounds that can store large amounts of energy by changing phases. This capacity to store heat without becoming overly warm makes phase change materials ideal for applications dealing with large amounts of energy, such as absorbing the heat generated by directed energy applications.
“Directed energy is a big topic in the defense industry, but firing a large laser also generates a lot of heat very quickly. Phase change materials have the potential to help mitigate this issue,” Rachel says. “I am working to build a laser test bed and use small laser diodes to determine the best phase change material for the application, and build a final package design to handle these high-power laser pulses.”
The group Rachel is working with hopes to finish package by the end of summer. This would allow the group to put out a paper next year sharing their findings and new developments.
“Beyond the Army’s goal of directed energy weapons, this research also has applications to other high-power thermal systems,” Rachel says. “All things get hot and thermal limitations shouldn’t stand in the way of emerging technology and design.”
“I have started to gain a lot of confidence from my work, a confidence I one day hope to spark in other young female engineers as a researcher, and perhaps a professor, in mechanical engineering,” Rachel says. “Through this experience, I hope not to just learn more about engineering, but also more about myself as a researcher and student.”