University of Utah mechanical engineering assistant professors Ashley Spear and Wenda Tan are two more College of Engineering professors who this year have received the coveted National Science Foundation CAREER Award. They follow School of Computing assistant professors Alexander Lex and Ryan Stutsman and electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Pierre-Emmanuel Gaillardon, all who received the award this year.

Ashley Spear

Spear received the $500,000 award to better understand the sources of failure in additively manufactured (AM), or 3D-printed, metal parts in hopes of better predicting their failure. These materials can be used in things such as aircraft and biomedical implants.

Spear will employ sophisticated materials characterization tools along with computational modeling to recreate and visualize the failure process in three dimensions, starting at microscopic-length scales. Once her team has a better understanding of how the AM defects can lead to failure, they will continue to develop models and tools that will help in designing higher-quality and higher-performance AM metal parts.

“I was ecstatic when I first learned about the award,” Spear said. “I feel very grateful to the NSF for investing in this research, which we think will have a significant impact on the future of AM in structural applications.

Spear joined the University of Utah in 2014. She earned a bachelor’s in architectural engineering from the University of Wyoming and a doctorate in civil engineering from Cornell University. In 2015, she received the Young Investigator Award from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Outstanding Teaching Award from the U’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2017.

Wenda Tan

Tan was awarded a $500,000 grant to explore a new process of laser welding known as Vibration-Assisted Laser Keyhole Welding (V-LKW). In laser welding, a laser is used to melt the components at the contacting position, and the components will join together upon the solidification of the melted portion. This process can potentially improve the welding productivity by tens and even hundreds of times compared with the conventional welding process, but it can suffer from several problems, including high porosity, coarse grains, and brittle intermetallic compounds in the joints, all of which can reduce the strength of the joint.

Tan’s research looks at how the vibration of the laser will help to solve these problems in laser welding. Experimentation and numerical modeling will be used simultaneously to investigate the fundamental physics in V-LKW.

“It is a great honor,” he said about the news of the award. “I feel thrilled that the NSF liked our proposal and the scientific value and practical importance of our idea. I also feel grateful for all the help and support that I have received from our department.”

Tan joined the U’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2015. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s from Tsinghua University in China and a doctorate from Purdue University, all in mechanical engineering. He is a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Welding Society.

The NSF CAREER Award is given out to faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.”