With grants from both the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Research Laboratory, she is studying a new nanomaterial and coating system to prevent and repair corrosion on military vessels and vehicles, including the F-35 joint strike fighter.

For Mala Sharma, thinking like an engineer runs in the family. Her father was a professor of engineering science and mechanics at Pennsylvania State University.

"When I was growing up, both of my parents - but especially my father, being an engineer - prompted me to ask questions, and think why things behave the way they do, are built the way they are, and how they could be better," she says. While getting her graduate degrees at Penn State, Sharma worked at the Applied Research Laboratory in State College, which got her hooked on doing innovative research.

"I was involved with various defense industry projects, which allowed me to be exposed to technologies not yet introduced in the mainstream manufacturing industry," she says.

Now as an associate professor of mechanical engineering, Sharma studies the structure-property relationships of material systems. With grants from both the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Research Laboratory, she is studying a new nanomaterial and coating system to prevent and repair corrosion on military vessels and vehicles, including the F-35 joint strike fighter. If successful, the new materials, which consist of  aluminum and  magnesium, will not only be stronger and more corrosion resistant, but will also be conducive to field applications and more environmentally friendly than the currently used, toxic chromate coatings.

As a materials engineer, Sharma studies new materials and the new methods required for working with them. For instance, the new coating is applied using a technique called cold spray, which accelerates the grains of a powdered metal to velocities ranging from 400 to 1,000 meters per second. "I've learned that one can't predict how a new material system will behave," she says. "Different manufacturing methods produce different material structures, grain size and shape. This in turn controls how the material system performs."

To be able to do her research on campus and share that experience with students, Sharma set up the Materials Characterization and Nondestructive Evaluation facility at Bucknell with funding from the National Science Foundation. She also takes students in her manufacturing processes course to tour the Applied Research Laboratory in State College to share the excitement that captivated her.

"I just find that materials research is an exciting field to be in," Sharma says. "New materials and processes are constantly being developed, and the research is always cutting-edge and innovative."

Posted Sept. 20, 2010

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