Pedro Reis receives Early Career Award from National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced recently that Pedro Reis will receive a 2014 Early Career Award from the NSF’s Structural Mechanics and Materials program for his project, “Smart Morphable Surfaces for Aerodynamic Drag Control.” The Early Career Award is the NSF’s most prestigious award for young researchers.

Reis is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Work in his research lab — the Elasticity, Geometry and Statistics Laboratory — focuses on understanding the mechanics of thin objects and structures, such as rods, plates and shells, with a particular interest on devising new ways of turning mechanical failure into functionality.

Some of Reis’ research deals with explaining the physics behind the mechanical behavior of everyday phenomena that also have significant engineering relevance. For example, he has studied the triangular tears that form when peeling adhesive tape from a roll, which is a process that also applies to graphene nanoribbons. More recently, he looked at the physics of morphable and reversible structures, such as the closure of some aquatic flowers. Reis used this study to develop a new means of pipetting liquids with a soft, petal-shaped device. And in 2012, he introduced the Buckliball, a new class of structures that uses buckling to provide origami-like folding capabilities to curved structures, work that can be used for encapsulation and is also applicable to soft robotics. (He explains his work in a short video made by John Freidah of mechanical engineering.)

With the Early Career Award, Reis plans to continue his study of compliant structures to devise and formalize a new class of Smart Morphable Surfaces (or Smorphs) that can achieve on-demand and reversible topography. He hopes this functionality can eventually be exploited for aerodynamic drag reduction and control on structures with complex-shaped surfaces, much like a dimpled golf ball, but with added switchable and tunable capabilities. Possible applications for Smorphs include use as a new material coating for automobiles and airplane wings to improve aerodynamic performance or as a coating for radomes (domed structures that protect radars) to prevent structural failure due to wind loading. (Reis described Smorphs in a videotaped talk last fall.)