UConn MSE Sweeps the 2023 ASM International Materials Challenges

UConn MSE undergraduate students placed first in two different materials challenges and MSE PhD student placed 3rd at the annual IMAT – Heat Treat conference

Six UConn students stand in front of a podium at the IMAT - Heat Treat conference wearing business clothing.

Back from left to right: Justin Coe ‘25, Benjamin Gwinnell ‘25, Carter Densk ‘25. Front from left to right: Leena Alam ‘25, Jaclyn Grace ‘24, Morgan Xu ‘25.

At this year’s IMAT – Heat Treat conference hosted by ASM International and the Heat Treating Society, a team of UConn Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) undergraduates placed first in the two student materials challenges: “Strong Bar” and “DomesDay.” 

“This sweep by UConn students — at a major national conference focused on the materials industry — demonstrates our commitment to hands-on learning,” says MSE department head Bryan Huey. “It included lots of hours beyond normal classes: by the students, and by dedicated faculty like Professors Fiona Leek and Hal Brody. Leek oversees our new 3000-square foot undergraduate teaching labs in the Science 1 building, while Brody established the UConn Foundry 25 years ago in the Gant complex. The support, impressive facilities, and industry-compatible equipment we provide perfectly sets up our students for successes like this — in competitions against other students from across the country, in summer internships, or in their careers beyond graduation.”

“Strong Bar” is a heat treatment competition organized by the Heat Treating Society and sponsored by the manufacturing test and simulation systems company MTS. The goal of the challenge is to create the strongest bar, with a combination of strength, ductility, and hardness, through heat treating. 

The team (“Huskies Bar,” consisting of team leader Ben Gwinnell, Jaclyn Grace, Justin Coe, and Leena Alam) was given four bars of AISI 9254 steel.  

Gwinnell describes the team’s approach: “I had initially looked into the previous years of Strong Bar in order to gain a better feel for how I’d want to heat treat our bar. I looked at TTT and phase diagrams for similar alloys to our own, and took three different TTT diagrams, overlaid them, and figured out where on the combined cooling curve I’d want to hit for the properties we were going for. Once I had this information, I cut the bars up into discs to individually test hardness for different variations of the treatment process. This led me to the realization that once I had a hard enough sample, I needed to make sure it still had enough ductility. I made sure to do a three-point bend test on two of our best performing samples and ultimately decided on the 865C/45min sample.”  

MSE senior Jaclyn Grace elaborates on the process: “We started by cutting one of the bars up into 1/4” disks and varying austenitizing temperature between 860°C and 880°C for 30 minutes, quenching with canola oil. We then tempered at 200°C between 15 and 90 minutes and took 10 hardness data points, averaging to make sure we were above the needed 50 HRC. After testing about 12 different combinations, we decided on moving forward with 865°C austenitizing and 45 minutes tempering (at 200oC). Our overall bar withstood 40kN of force, the most of all of the bars tested. It also had a deflection of 8mm.” 

“This experience taught me that being a leader is more than telling people what to do,” Gwinnell says. “You have to be at the forefront of knowledge, so that people can rely on you to deliberate in a way that is best for the team overall. I was very proud of how the final sample turned out. It felt like all the hard work paid off.” 

“DomesDay” is a geodesic dome fabrication competition organized by ASM International. The competition has run since 2014 and was initially established to pull more Material Advantage (a membership program that provides students with access to preeminent materials science and engineering professional societies) students to the annual conference.  

The UConn Materials Advantage advisor, MSE assistant professor Lesley Frame, says, “UConn has participated many times over the past 8 years, and in 2019 the UConn team won ‘Best in Destruction.’ However, I think this is the first time that we brought home both the ‘Judges Choice’ and ‘First Place’ awards.”  

Team “Trampled Gampel” (consisting of team leader Jaclyn Grace, Carter Densk, and Morgan Xu) started off by modeling the proposed dome in OnShape.  

“Once printed and confirmed to pass all design specifications, we added a hexagonal pouring sprew and air vents and printed again,” Grace says. “We then met with Ben Gwinnell and PhD student Matthew Carragher, who helped us create an investment mold to cast the dome out of 356.2 Aluminum. Once removed from the mold, we sawed off the sprew and air vents and added rubber to the feet. Each dome was judged with a standardized strength/weight ratio.”  

UConn’s dome withstood 11kN of force. That means that this student-made, large bowl-sized design was able to support more than 1 ton!

“Helping out the Domesday team was a lot of fun, but I didn’t have to do much!” says Carragher. “They’re exceptional students, so all it really took was a few pieces of technical advice, and they did the rest on their own. Both teams’ success is a testament to their hard work and skill as MSE students.” 

ASM International is one of the largest materials engineering organizations, and the annual conference draws thousands of professionals across industry, academia, national labs, and government sectors. The conference leadership is currently seeking to increase student participation opportunities, both in challenges and in the technical research talks.  

This year, another UConn student, M. Nabil Bhuiyan, placed third in the conference’s Fluxtrol Student Research Competition. Bhuiyan is a PhD student in Frame and Nakhmanson’s research groups, and his research on “Numerical analysis on morphology of second phase particles during grain growth” was very well received at the conference.   

UConn was represented by a total of six undergraduates, four PhD students, a post-doctoral researcher and one faculty member at the conference. 

“We are very proud of the hard work that our students put into these competitions,” says Frame. “Not only did they have an opportunity to challenge themselves in new ways, but their participation at the conference gave them a chance to meet students from other programs, potential future employers, and learn about a lot of great materials research happening around the world. I think the students got a lot out of it, and I am very pleased that their hard work is recognized.”