Two BYU mechanical engineers selected for NASA grants

NASA has long recognized the innovative power of students. Its prestigious Space Technology Research Fellowship identifies and funds academic research that could be used by NASA for space missions. Of the 65 students selected for fellowships this year, two are from Brigham Young University.

Thomas Hardin and Ezekiel Merriam are graduate students in the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology. Both are currently working on research that NASA identified as having “space potential.”

The grant money will cover research costs -- including salary and tuition -- so that Hardin and Merriam can continue to focus on their research. Students who recieve the NASA fellowship can be awarded up to $68,000 a year for up to four years.

Ezekiel Merriam - 3-D printed pointing device

Ezekiel Merriam was selected for a grant because of his innovative research with his two-degree-of-freedom pointing device. Merriam, part of the BYU Compliant Mechanisms Research Group (CMR), is working toward his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. The NASA fellowship will enable him to further develop his research.

The two-degree-of-freedom device has a few applications for space missions. It can allow for easier, more frictionless movement in space. It could, for example, be used to orient an antenna or solar array on a satellite. Its design decreases the number of thrusters needed to move without sacrificing maneuverability.

Even though the device is very complex, Merriam was able to create it out of a single piece of titanium using 3-D printing technology.

“The purpose of the pointer is to demonstrate how using advances in 3-D printing technology could reduce space mechanism cost … ” Merriam said. “3-D printing can build complex metal parts as a single chunk of material.”

Merriam wrote a paper on his research that has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. He has also been selected as a finalist for an international engineering design competition. He will be presenting his 3-D printed pointing device at a conference in Portland in early August.

Thomas Hardin - microstructure of metals

Thomas Hardin, a master’s student in the Mechanical Engineering department, is currently researching materials. In the past, he has used an electron microscope to measure defects in metallic crystals. Now he is looking into how the interface between metallic crystals affects a metal’s strength, durability and ductility.

Hardin’s research could help NASA build more reliable spacecraft.

“When NASA sends a space probe – or even a satellite – out, if something breaks on it, chances are they won’t be able to bring it back for repairs,” Hardin said. “Reliability and predictability are really important to them. The chemistry and microstructure of a metal are essentially the factors that determine how strong it is, and especially when and how a metal breaks.”

Hardin didn’t originally plan for his research to have space implications, but his advisor, Dr. Eric Homer, encouraged him to apply for the grant.

“Thomas is an exceptional graduate student and I am privileged to work with him,” Dr. Homer said. “I am confident that Thomas will continue to be very productive throughout his career.”

Hardin completed his undergraduate degree at BYU, double-majoring in mathematics and mechanical engineering. After his master’s degree, he will pursue a Ph.D., also in the fields of math and engineering.

Merriam and Hardin are not the first BYU engineering students to receive the NASA grant. Taylor Webb and Shannon Zirbel, awardees from 2011 and 2012 respectively, are also alumni of the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology.


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