Sustainable and Durable Construction Materials Under Development in Rutgers‒Camden Research Lab

David Salas de la Cruz

David Salas-de la Cruz

By Jeanne Leong

Rutgers University–Camden chemistry professor David Salas-de la Cruz is working to develop lightweight, ultra-strong, and energy-efficient eco-manufacturing materials to construct buildings as part of a multidisciplinary research team from four universities.

Through a $4.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Salas-de la Cruz is joining forces with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Rowan University to develop sustainable, adaptive building blocks using natural materials from plants and animals, along with synthetic polymers, to develop composite materials that are low-cost, high-performing structural components.

The project connects Salas-de la Cruz’s natural material structural and morphological knowledge, which relates to the form or structure of things, into the synthesis of new materials for manufacturing. “This grant is very important because it will enable my research group to build a bridge between fundamental science and real-world applications,” says Salas-de la Cruz, an associate professor of chemistry at Rutgers University–Camden.

The researchers aim to develop self-morphing building blocks from the nano to macro scales inspired by biological systems to devise novel manufacturing processes of highly efficient structures and components from centimeter to meter scale. The systems could replace common construction materials such as concrete, steel, aluminum, and carbon fibers in constructing bridges and buildings, which produce large amounts of construction waste and energy consumption. “Imagine setting the building foundation and suddenly seeing all of its structural components being assembled by modular on-demand printing using origami/kirigami engineering,” explains the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

Salas-de la Cruz earned his Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, where project leader Shu Yang was one of his Ph.D. program professors. Yang asked Salas-de la Cruz to join her team on this project.

The alliance brings together researchers in architectural and structural designs; chemistry; physics; materials science; bio-, chemical and mechanical engineering; computation; and economics. It will also train future science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics (STEAM) workforce and innovative K-12 curricula, science demonstrations, public exhibitions, workshops, and outreach to underrepresented groups and internship opportunities.

Rutgers–Camden students working on this project will develop strong and competitive skills in chemistry, material science, physics, and engineering while collaborating with researchers from the partner universities. “This will be a tremendous opportunity for Rutgers students to participate in highly competitive research involving other top universities and to visit each other laboratories to learn and perform research,” Salas-de la Cruz explains.

Salas-de la Cruz’s other community engagement work includes creating and leading the 3D printing fabrication laboratory in LEAP’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) building. Known as the Fab Lab, the facility allows K-12 grade students to take designs from concept to reality using 3D printers and up-to-date fabrication technologies to create solutions to community-oriented problems. If there is gear they do not have for a project, they can create it.

Salas-de la Cruz also has provided research opportunities in his lab through other National Science Foundation grants, the American Chemistry Society SEED program, the New Jersey Space Grant Consortium and the Army Educational Outreach Program’s (AEOP) High School Apprenticeship Program offered with Jinglin Fu, a Rutgers–Camden professor of chemistry.

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