Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
areas of expertise: mechanics of materials, fracture, failure, molecular modeling, molecular mechanics, protein structure, nanomechanics, biological materials, proteins, silk, spider silk, collagen, bone, cellular proteins, genetic disease, injury, bioinspired materials, biomimetics, ceramics, hierarchical systems, networks, thermal materials, energy materials, sustainable materials, self-assembly, construction materials, structural design, universality-diversity-paradigm
Professor Markus J. Buehler and his students focus on understanding the mechanics of deformation and failure of biological and synthetic materials. By utilizing a computational materials science approach, their goal is to understand the mechanics of deformation and failure of nature’s construction materials at a fundamental level. The deformation and failure of engineering materials has been studied extensively, and the results have impacted our world by enabling the design of advanced materials, structures and devices. However, the mechanisms of materials failure in biological systems are not well understood and thus present an opportunity to institute a new paradigm of materials science at the interface of engineering and biology.
Proteins are the main building blocks of life—universally composed of merely about 20 distinct amino acids—realize a diversity of material properties that provide structural support, locomotion, energy and material transport, to ultimately yield multifunctional and mutable materials. Despite this functional complexity, the makeup of biological materials is often simple and has developed under extreme evolutionary pressures to facilitate a species' survival in adverse environments. As a result, materials in biology are efficiently created with low energy consumption, under simple processing conditions, and are exquisite as they often form from a few distinct, however abundantly available, repeating material constituents. Interestingly, these abundant material constituents (such as H-bonds) are often functionally inferior and extremely weak. Yet, materials such as silk, collagen in tendon and bone, or intermediate filament proteins that make up cells and hair are highly functional, mutable, and some even stronger than steel. It is therefore an elementary question how Nature can achieve such functional material properties in spite of severe environmental constraints.
By incorporating concepts from structural engineering, materials science and biology, Professor Buehler’s research has identified the core principles that link the fundamental atomistic-scale chemical structures to functional scales by understanding how biological materials achieve superior mechanical properties through the formation of hierarchical structures, via a merger of the concepts of structure and material. His work has demonstrated that the chemical composition of biology's construction materials plays a minor role in achieving functional properties. Rather, the way components are connected at distinct scales defines what material properties can be achieved, how they can be altered to meet functional requirements, and how they fail in disease states.
Similar to conventional engineering testing of materials (e.g. by exposing them to severe stress to break them) his research approach is based on using the study of materials failure as a tool to elucidate the design principles of how functional material properties are achieved, and how they are lost. He applies an experimentally validated multi-scale modeling and simulation approach that considers the structure-process-property paradigm of materials science and the architecture of proteins at multiple levels, from the atomistic (chemistry, molecular) scale up to the overall structural scale (material, tissue, spider web). His research has resulted in an engineering paradigm that facilitates the analysis and design of sustainable materials, starting from the molecular level, which mimic and exceed the properties of biological ones while being constructed from abundant and intrinsically poor material constituents.
Civil engineering is a broad subfield of engineering that focuses on strategies to develop and maintain the infrastructures to enable and evolve modern civilization. Environmental science is concerned with the complex interaction of synthetic structures with natural environments, and with development of environmentally friendly engineering concepts. In both fields, materials and their properties play an essential role for many applications. Its fundamental, theoretical and scientific understanding is the primary goal of the research carried out in this lab. For example, a better understanding of the failure mechanisms of materials has high impact in preventing failure of existing structures. The development of new materials may lead to better designs and could replace classical approaches, as for example by using environmentally friendly coatings, functional surfaces or new construction materials.
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