Yale engineer awarded $1 million for pioneering research of macroscale self-assembly

Have you ever been frustrated by pills that clog when you try to pour them out of a container, annoyed that your unopened box of cereal is only half-filled, or awed by the wind-formed ripples in desert sand? Corey O’Hern, associate professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, applied physics, and physics at Yale, has been awarded a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to explore just such phenomena.

Corey O’Hern

O’Hern’s research focuses on the complex and little-understood physics of systems composed of macro-sized particles. “I am absolutely thrilled that the Keck Foundation recognizes the importance and need for fundamental studies in granular media,” O’Hern said.

The Keck grant supports a pioneering study that aims to establish the first comprehensive, theoretical framework for predicting how macroscale particles — from grains of sand to coffee beans — self-assemble into large arrangements with mechanical properties that resemble, but are distinct from, what is traditionally considered a solid state.

Assemblies of macroscale particles become trapped in a variety of unpredictable states that depend on the precise process used to create them. Without the thermal fluctuations that govern microscale and nanoscale systems, macroscale systems stay in that state until an outside force rearranges the particles. Understanding how to predict macroscale assemblies could have significant impact in systems that span erosion, earthquake faults, and industrial flows.

“This combined theoretical, computational, and experimental work will allow us to develop a theoretical framework for macroscale particle assemblies akin to statistical mechanics and thermodynamics for liquids and solids,” O’Hern said.

William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company, established the W.M. Keck Foundation in Los Angeles, in 1954. The foundation is one of the nation’s most prominent philanthropic organizations supporting science, engineering, and medical research. By funding top researchers, laboratories, and research centers, the foundation promotes discovery that will save lives, solve complex problems, and enhance understanding of the natural world.