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Innovation Delaware Q&A: Jack Gillespie, Center for Composite Materials


The Center for Composite Materials at the University of Delaware is a leader when it comes to basic and applied research in composites. Founded in 1974, the center has an economic impact on Delaware of about $50 million a year.

More than 150 Delaware companies benefit from its work, and it supports 450 jobs around the state. More than 150 professionals, graduate students, fellows and undergraduate students are engaged in research in its more than 58,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art research facility.

Some of the recent projects the center has conducted in Delaware include a design for composite girders used in more than 45 bridges across the United States and the development of a process for designing and manufacturing orthotics made of composite materials for use by wounded soldiers.
Jack Gillespie, the center’s director, tells us more about the center and its role.

When did the Center for Composite Materials start?

CCM was founded in 1974 to conduct basic and applied research, educate students as scientists and engineers and transition our research to industry for commercialization. In 1978, CCM founded our university-industry consortium “Application of Composite Materials to Industrial Products.” More than 400 companies have been members of the consortium, with more than 40 current sponsors. The companies provide funding to educate students as future employees and to fund research that can lead to new products. Since 1985 and through 2022, CCM is designated as a Center of Excellence, receiving awards through national competition from the National Science Foundation, Army Research Office, Office of Naval Research, Federal Aviation Administration and Army Research Laboratory. Today, CCM has more than 2,500 alumni working in industry, government laboratories and academia, teaching the next generation of students. CCM also has an international network of outreach on composites science and engineering with more than 3,500 companies worldwide and more than 100 in the state of Delaware.

What are composites and what are their benefits?

Composites are ultra-lightweight materials consisting of two or more constituents (e.g., carbon fibers and polymer matrix) that yield multifunctional properties providing superior product performance. For example, carbon fiber-reinforced polymers have higher specific stiffness and strength than other material. Composites don’t corrode. Composites can offer improved thermal, electrical and electromagnetic properties. A key aspect of composites is that they are anisotropic (properties are directionally dependent), and the microstructure can be designed/tailored to further improve performance and reduce weight.

What is the center’s role?

CCM’s mission is to do research, education and technology transfer to industry. On the research side, we have capabilities to synthesize new constituent materials, process new composites, characterize multifunctional properties and design composites for new applications. A major uniqueness is CCM’s capability to manufacture and scale up materials into functional prototypes. Proving out the materials, processing, manufacturing scale-up and performance of products is very unique and provides great value to our industrial sponsors interested in commercializing these products.

How does the center work with industry?

CCM seeks long-term partnerships with industry through our industrial consortium. CCM will also team up with industry to compete for federal research funding. CCM is very active working with small businesses, providing access to our experts for consultation and helping them win SBIR/STTR programs to secure funding for their companies. CCM helped incubate and spin off many small companies. CCM also works closely with the Delaware Economic Development Office to attract new companies to Delaware.

Does the center work with other universities?

CCM has a long history of collaboration with academia. Many of our graduates are now faculty at other universities. We routinely team up and partner with universities to strengthen our proposals and increase the probability of winning. Currently we have an ARL-funded program with Johns Hopkins, CalTech and Rutgers on multiscale modeling to create a “Materials by Design” computational framework for new materials. We are also working on a DARPA project with Clemson, Virginia Tech and Drexel universities on creating new materials and processes that can be stamped like metals at very high rates, while retaining the ultra-high properties used in space and aerospace composite applications.

This article appeared in the premiere issue of Delaware Innovation Magazine, an overview of the state’s cutting edge industries and the people leading them. See the whole issue here.

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