Fluid mechanics expert Brun receives NSF CAREER Award

Monday, Jan 11, 2021
by Tom Garlinghouse

The National Science Foundation has granted its CAREER award to Pierre-Thomas Brun, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering. The award supports junior faculty members who have demonstrated exceptional ability in scientific leadership, education or community outreach.

The award amounts to approximately $500,000 in research funding over a period of five years. Brun will use the bulk of the funds to support graduate students who work in his lab. In general, their research looks at how fluids transition to solids and the myriad patterns formed in the process.

Examples range from the coils created when honey is poured onto toast to the orderly arrangement of dewdrops on a spiderweb. These structures originate from fluid mechanical instabilities, which have been thoroughly studied in the context of pure liquids, such as water and oil. In the real world, however, fluid dynamical systems are often more complex. For example, latex starts as a viscous liquid but transitions to an elastic solid when cured.

Brun’s work promises to have wide-ranging impacts in several fields, including, for example, 3D printing and soft robotics. The latter is a subfield of robotics that is concerned with constructing robotic systems using soft, gel-like or fluidic materials that mimic living organisms.

“We’re trying to understand the rules that combine flow and structures,” Brun said. “If you understand how these structures are formed, then you can dictate the outcome of these processes and start to design innovative materials.”

Additionally, the research will contribute to Princeton’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, an outreach program that provides traditionally underrepresented students with opportunities to work with materials-science researchers. The goal is to attract and engage underrepresented students and encourage and support their education toward graduate studies.

The award will also help to further a collaboration between Brun and artist Dan Lam, who creates elaborate “dripping” sculptures using such materials as epoxy resin, polyurethane foam and acrylic paint. An exhibition of works from this collaboration, to be announced later this year, will showcase art at the intersection of science and engineering.

Brun joined the Princeton faculty in 2016. Prior to that, he studied at several institutions, including the École Polytechnique in France, Cambridge University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Paris, where he received his Ph.D. in mechanics.

Brun is the recipient of several awards, including the APS/DFD Gallery of Fluid Motion Award, the Milton van Dyke Award, and recently an NSF grant that funds research investigating how highly-durable and environmentally sustainable materials might replace common manufacturing materials, such as concrete.