Posts related to undergraduate research

Physics undergrad is the recipient of 2018 Mark Miller research award

Physics major Brenna Robertson has been selected as the recipient of the 2018 Mark Miller Undergraduate Research Award. Brenna’s proposal, which focuses on modeling supermassive black hole spin using spectral emission diagrams, was selected from among a strong pool of applicants. Brenna Robertson is working with Prof. Jonathan Trump.

The Mark Miller Award is a stipend to allow a student to remain in Storrs over the Summer session to work on a research project with a faculty member of the Physics Department. It was created through a donation made by Mark E. Miller, a UConn physics major alum.

NASA awards to two physics undergraduate students

Undergraduate Physics Majors, Sam Cutler and Anthony (Josh) Machado, recently received awards from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

Awards recipients Sam Cutler (right) and Josh Machado

Sam was awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship to perform research at UConn this summer working with Prof. Kate Whitaker. The title of his research project is “Examining High Redshift Rotation Curve Outside the Local Universe”.

Josh was awarded the Undergraduate Scholarship by the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium, and will be performing astrophysics research this summer at UConn working with Prof. Cara Battersby.

UConn undergraduate researcher developing new radon detector for household use

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists radon as a primary cause of lung cancer, second only to smoking. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20,000 deaths each year from lung cancer in the U.S. are the result of exposure to radon in the living environment. It is believed that as many as 1 in 15 homes in the continental United States have radon levels that require some form of mitigation. In spite of this, very few homes are equipped with continuous radon monitoring devices and most radiation monitoring facilities only provide feedback on time scales of weeks or even months.

The technology used in standard residential radon monitoring has not changed significantly over the past 50 years. On the other hand, development of fast detectors for particle physics experiments at large international laboratories such as the Large Hadron Collider over the past two decades has opened up new technologies for radiation detection that may result in a significant improvement in the efficiency and response time for radon detection.

UConn undergraduate Mira Varma, pictured above, is holding a part of what she hopes to assemble into a hand-held radon detector capable of detecting changes in radon concentration on the time scale of an hour, close to the time scale of the natural variation in a residential environment, rather than days or weeks. Mira is carrying out this development under the direction of UConn Physics Prof. Richard Jones.

Undergraduate achievements receive wide attention

Thermal Funkiness: Explaining the Unexpected

Shrinking scandium fluoride. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
(Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Whoever said rules were made to be broken wasn’t a physicist. When something doesn’t act the way you think it should, either the rules are wrong, or there’s new physics to be discovered. Which is exactly what UConn’s Connor Occhialini ’18 (CLAS), an honors student majoring in physics and math, found when he began researching scandium fluoride.

Scandium fluoride is a transparent crystal with a cubic shape, a byproduct of mining. It’s not used commercially and it wouldn’t be particularly interesting to anyone except for one odd thing: it shrinks as it warms.

Most materials swell as they heat up. Really simple materials like hydrogen gas swell because the heat makes their atoms zoom around faster, bumping into each other more, so the same number of hydrogen atoms need more space. More complicated materials also swell, which is why your wooden front door tends to stick in the summertime. But solids like wood can’t swell as much as a gas because their atoms are tightly linked together into long, interlocked molecules, so they just jiggle around, swelling the door a little bit.

Scandium fluoride must be doing something else, reasoned Occhialini. His advisor for his honors physics project, Jason Hancock, had been working with scandium fluoride, and asked Occhialini to study a model of the crystal’s dynamics. Scandium fluoride has a pretty simple structure: it’s a solid crystal, with each scandium atom surrounded by six fluorines to make stacks of octahedra (eight-sided diamonds). The researchers hoped the simple structure might be easy to understand. Understanding scandium fluoride’s strange ‘negative thermal expansion’, as physicists call the heat-related shrinkage, might yield more general insight into other, more complex materials that do the same thing.

Occhialini’s first step was to simplify the problem. So instead of a three-dimensional crystal, he decided to think about it as a two-dimensional sheet that looks like this:

Figure 1. Shrinking scandium fluoride. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
Figure 1. Help, I’m shrinking! The black diamonds represent scandium fluoride molecules. As they warm, they rotate, and the crystal contracts. Notice how the molecules near the center of mass (central dot) move less than the molecules closer to the crystal’s edge. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Each black diamond represents a molecule of scandium fluoride. The scandium atoms (blue dots) are at the center of each diamond, and a fluorine atom is at each corner.

Most of the time, bonds between atoms are flexible. So in a normal crystalline solid – calcium fluoride, for example – the fluorines and calcium atoms would all be able to wiggle around independently when the material warmed up. As they wiggled, they’d take up a little more space, and the solid would swell. Normal solid behavior.

But Occhialini wondered if maybe that wasn’t what was happening in scandium fluoride. Maybe in this model, he should assume the bonds connecting each fluorine to its scandium were stiff? So stiff the fluorine-scandium bonds don’t move at all, so the diamonds are like solid blocks. The only places the structure would be able to flex when it warmed up would be at the fluorine atoms, which would act like tiny little joints. As the crystal heated up, the little scandium fluoride blocks would tilt around the fluorines at the corners. That’s what you see happening in the picture. You’ll notice that when the diamonds tilt, the whole structure gets smaller. It actually tightens up. The blue outline shows the structure at its coldest, perfectly ordered state, with no molecular motion. When the diamonds tilt, they take up a smaller total volume than the blue outline delineates. This is negative thermal expansion.

Figure 2. The angle, Θ, a scandium fluoride molecule makes as it rotates. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
Figure 2. How much a scandium fluoride crystal shrinks depends on how far the molecules rotate. Here, the blue diamond in the upper right corner is rotating clockwise, sweeping out an angle theta. The dotted lines show its position when the angle was zero. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Occhialini figured out that you can describe this shrinkage mathematically, using just the angle of the molecules’ tilt. He called the angle Θ (theta). When the scandium fluoride blocks tilt by an angle Θ, the distance between the center of each block shortens by a factor of cosine Θ, and the crystal’s total volume shrinks.

To calculate that shrinkage (or, in a normal material, expansion) in detail, Occhialini added a third term to the classic equation that describes the energy of a vibrating crystal. The first two terms in the standard equation describe the potential energy a crystal has from the bending at each molecular junction, plus the kinetic energy of rotation of each molecule. Occhialini’s equation also describes the translational kinetic energy of the molecules–not just from rotating around, but also moving toward and away from their original positions as they rotate. The further they are from the center of mass of the crystal, the more they move. Look back at Figure 1 and notice the dot in the middle; that’s the center of mass. The diamonds in the middle barely move in relation to it, while the diamonds at the edges move a lot. Now imagine how much of a difference there would be if the crystal had millions of molecules instead of just 25. And now you understand how important that third term could be to the energy of the crystal.

Now, molecules being molecules, they don’t just shrink and stay there. They’re moving constantly, and the warmer they get, the more they move. Part of Occhialini’s insight is that, on average, the molecular structure gets bendier the warmer it gets. So the molecules tilt more and spend more time at bigger values of Θ, closer to 45 degrees. After Occhialini thought it over for a while together with Hancock and physics Ph.D. students Sahan Handunkanda and Erin Curry, they realized there was a geometric shape that had the same mathematical description. It’s Archimedes’ spiral pendulum, and it looks like this:

Figure 3. Archimedes' spiral. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)
Figure 3. Twist and shrink. The equation describing the rotation of the scandium fluoride molecules is the same as the equation describing the movement of a ball on an Archimedes’ spiral pendulum. Notice how it spends more time at larger angles. (Yesenia Carrero/UConn Image)

Each turning of the spiral is exactly the same distance from the last. That spacing – the distance between turns – is controlled by Θ. Imagine a line that stretches from the center of the sphere to a point on the spiral. The angle between that line and the pole of the sphere is Θ. You see the little ball traveling along the spiral? That’s the end of the imaginary line. As Θ gets bigger, the ball moves towards the equator. Imagine that the ball represents the instantaneous state of the scandium fluoride crystal – the physicists calculated the statistical average of what every molecule in the crystal is doing. You’ll notice the ball spends more time near the equator of the spiral sphere, that is, it tends to hang out where Θ is large. If the temperature of the crystal drops and the molecules wiggle less, Θ gets smaller, the more time the ball spends near the pole of the sphere and the less the crystal shrinks.

So not only can a really weird phenomenon of a crystal that shrinks as it warms be explained by just assuming the molecules are rigid, but it can be illustrated with a classical geometric shape!

Occhialini was just a freshman when Hancock introduced him to the scandium fluoride puzzle. He had to learn the math as he went, but after about two semesters of working on it he’d figured out the equation that described what was going on. Now in his senior year, he says his research experiences in Hancock’s lab have been integral to his experience as an undergraduate.

The equation works beautifully and explains certain aspects of Hancock’s experimental x-ray measurements as well.

“I learned a lot more doing research than any course could have given me,” Occhialini says.

And now you, dear reader, have learned a little bit, too.

Occhialini’s research has been funded through his advisor’s NSF grant no. DMR-1506825 and a SURF fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Research. He was also named a Treibick Scholar.

Physics undergraduates honored at annual SPS lecture and banquet

Sigma Pi Sigma inductees 2017
UConn physics majors inducted into local chapter of Sigma Pi Sigma during ceremony in April, 2017

Spring 2017 the UConn chapter of the Sigma Pi Sigma Honor Society inducted 11 new members: Filip Bergabo, Vincent Flynn, Kevin Grassie, Daniel Kovner, Jack Lichtman, Paul Molinaro, Connor Occhialini, Brian Roy, Andrew Sampino, Theodore Sauyet, and Hope Whitelock. The academic scholarship of this group is truly outstanding, and probably unprecedented in the chapter’s history. Congratulations to all! In addition Bergabo and Whitelock are both doing REU’s this summer, Occhialini and Flynn are double Physics and Math majors, and both Roy and Sauyet were the 2015 recipients of the department’s Mark Miller award for undergraduate research while Vincent Flynn is the 2016 recipient of the department’s Mark Miller award for undergraduate research. The induction ceremony and banquet again took place in the Morosko Student Lounge of the Pharmacy Building. Barry Wells, the new SPS club advisor, masterfully mastered the ceremonies. Micki Bellamy (newly appointed Undergrad Physics Major Advisor!) worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make the days’

“Caution: Shrinks When Warm”

Sahan Handunkanada, holds a crystal sample on Sept. 22, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

 – Kim Krieger – UConn Communications

Jason Hancock, Assistant Professor in Physics, with graduate students, Erin Curry and Sahan Handunkanda, have been investigating a substance that shrinks when it warms.

Most materials swell when they warm, and shrink when they cool. But UConn physicist Jason Hancock has been investigating a substance that responds in reverse: it shrinks when it warms.

Although thermal expansion, and the cracking and warping that often result, are an everyday occurrence – in buildings, bridges, electronics, and almost anything else exposed to wide temperature swings – physicists have trouble explaining why solids behave that way.

Research by Hancock and his colleagues into scandium trifluoride, a material that has negative thermal expansion, recently published in Physical Review B, may lead to a better understanding of why materials change volume with temperature at all, with potential applications such as more durable electronics. For the complete article in UConn Today that explains their findings, see “Caution: Shrinks When Warm” .