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Austin Peay physics professor receives $300,000 NSF grant to conduct research on innovative glass materials

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Crystalline materials form the foundation of virtually all electronic equipment, serve as the engine powering Silicon Valley and have enabled the modern computing revolution. But despite their importance, crystalline materials, which include silicon and sapphire and are valued for their unique properties, are naturally rare and expensive to produce.  By contrast glass materials, which do not arrange their atoms in a regular crystal structure, are inexpensive and easily produced.

For the past few years, Austin Peay State University students and professors have been addressing this very issue, traveling the globe to work with some of the world’s leading experts in glass production as they explore possible substitutes for crystalline materials in modern technology.

“The quality of our life significantly depends on materials we use in high-tech fields like electronics and optics,” Dr. Andriy Kovalskiy, Austin Peay physics professor, said. “In those fields, simple crystals are preferred because of their unique properties, but they’re extremely expensive. What we’re trying to do is develop materials which will be much cheaper, but have the same properties of those single crystals.”

In 2014, Kovalskiy and his team received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research into the possibility of applying glass thin films for use in applications such as infrared photonics, optical computing and memory devices.

While the films have numerous beneficial properties, Kovalskiy said there was much work to be done before they could be considered stable enough for use in modern tech.

“We are working with what are known as amorphous materials, which are materials that have some disorder to their structure,” Kovalskiy said. “The idea is that they contain comparable properties, but are much cheaper because they are ‘every day’ items like glasses and films.

“What we submitted to the NSF was a proposal to study the development of amorphous materials, in this case we are studying film materials, and how they interact with light for use in optical technology.”

The money received from the NSF has been used to provide a team of students the opportunity to work on their research on a near full-time basis. Currently, Kovalskiy has five students – four physics and one chemistry student – working as a part of the department’s “Glass Group” and publishing their findings alongside researchers from Lehigh University and the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic. NSF grant funds have been used to provide each researcher with a salary, as well as the materials and equipment needed to conduct their research.

In addition, Austin Peay students, under the guidance of Kovalskiy and other professors from Austin Peay’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, have traveled to the Czech Republic, France and Brazil to share ideas and learn new techniques from top minds in their field.

Joshua Allen is one of those students who has focused his attention on the work being done by Kovalskiy’s team. Allen recently spent a month at the University of Pardubice, preparing slides for use in the evaporation of arsenic sulphur.

Only a junior, Allen is an example of the research opportunities commonly reserved for graduate-level students that are offered to undergraduates at Austin Peay. Allen has been a co-author of four presentations during annual meetings of the American Physical Society Southeastern Section (since joining Kovalskiy’s team.)

“I had Dr. Kovalskiy for my first physics class my freshman year and he mentioned research was being done (at Austin Peay), so I pretty much bugged him until he let me join the team,” Allen said. “I was only a sophomore when I got the chance to go over (to the Czech Republic), and it was really a great experience. I’ve only been doing this work since spring of my freshman year, and I really love what I’m doing.”

A junior transfer student, chemistry major Virginia White is in her first year at Austin Peay and has quickly become a part of the research team. White’s work has primarily centered around finding new ways to produce glass in an oxygen-free environment – a task that White said has been difficult, but extremely rewarding.

“What I love about this team is that, as soon I started here, Dr. Kovalskiy gave me an objective that was up to me to figure out,” White said. “Figuring out (how to create glass without contamination with oxygen) has not been easy, but it’s shown me how much time and effort needs to be put into science.

“Before I became a part of the research being done here at Austin Peay, I didn’t think science was that difficult, but I’ve learned so much since I was given the opportunity to do serious research.”

For more information on Austin Peay’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and the research being conducted, visit www.apsu.edu/physics.