Sandia LabNews

Great Minds in STEM salutes Sandian

Frank DelRio honored for outstanding technical achievement

Image of HENAAC award winner Frank DelRio
PIT MANEUVERS — Sandia mechanical engineer Frank DelRio works on a nano-indenter to investigate the chemo-mechanical weakening of layered phyllosilicate muscovite mica in liquid environments. (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

Sandia mechanical engineer Frank DelRio likes to think small — microscopically small. His groundbreaking work in nanomechanics and nanotribology has earned him a trip to Pasadena, California, for the 2022 Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference, HENAAC, where he will be honored for his technical achievements.

“Through nanomechanics, we look at how things deform, how they fracture, how they fatigue and respond to a mechanical stimulus,” Frank said. “Through nanotribology, we’re moving two surfaces relative to one another, trying to understand why we see the frictions that we see and developing lubrications schemes to mitigate those effects.” He is an engineer of numerous technical achievements in assuring material and component reliability in products ranging from satellites in space to cellphones in the palms of our hands.

The prodigal son

Frank said that math and science pulled at him from an early age. “I’ve always enjoyed solving problems, building things and fixing things,” he said. “My mom says that as early as she can remember, I tinkered with things, trying to figure out how they work. I was constantly trying to make them better.”

This innate curiosity landed Frank in a magnet high school focused on science, technology, engineering and math. “I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I just kind of fell into it. By the end of high school, I had already made my way through the first two or three years of typical college math. Science was the same way.”

Frank spent the next eight years chasing a doctorate in mechanical engineering. While in graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he learned of a Sandia Labs Microsystems Engineering Science and Applications, or MESA, fellowship. He applied, was accepted and spent more than two years working with Sandia scientists on his graduate school research.

With his doctorate in hand, Frank joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 2007 developing and refining standardized units of measurement at every level, from global communication networks to advanced nanomaterials and computer chips. He was enjoying his work at NIST, where he had become a project leader and group leader, when he learned of an opening at Sandia that aligned with his interests and skills. “I had relationships at Sandia from my days as an intern and even contributed to joint projects with the Labs working at NIST,” Frank said. He returned to Sandia in 2020 as a member of the research and development technical staff in the materials science department.

Image of HENAAC award winner Frank DelRio works on an atomic-force microscope
SCIENCE FRICTION — Sandia mechanical engineer Frank DelRio works on an atomic-force microscope to characterize the growth kinetics of amorphous carbon tribofilms on platinum-gold nanocrystalline alloys. (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

The experimentalist

Frank spends much of his time conducting nanomechanics and nanotribology tests with his two good friends, a nano-indenter and an atomic-force microscope. “I call myself an experimentalist,” he said, “focused on nanomechanics and nanotribology, basically poking at things at very small scales and analyzing the response to those mechanical stimuli, then extracting fundamental properties of the materials that I’m looking at.

“I’ve also been working at the DOE’s Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies as an affiliate scientist,” Frank said. “Much of my work at Sandia is in electronics, but now I’m working with nano applications in renewable energy and biomedical and health, and it really stretches my skills and interests,” he said. Through the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, Frank works with experts at the top of their game from across the country. “It’s an amazing integration of nanoscience talent,” he said, “and a really neat way to apply the techniques we’re developing to areas that we might not otherwise.”

Frank’s work might seem lofty, but it has applications in everyday life. “Our work has improved the reliability of everything from satellites to smart phones and televisions,” he said.

HENAAC’s special meaning

Frank is the recipient of scores of national awards, but this one is different. “This HENAAC award is really special,” he said. “I’m dedicating this honor to my dad. He really taught me and my sister the value of working long, hard days and going after what you want. That came from his roots, his early days in Cuba and his Hispanic heritage and family.”

He says HENAAC provides an important sense of community that brings people together and shows younger Hispanic students and professionals in STEM that it’s possible to go to graduate school and become a professor, work at a national lab or be an industry leader. “Everybody has their own challenges and obstacles in life, and groups like HENAAC provide a community of support that creates opportunities for others,” he said.

Great Minds in STEM is dedicated to keeping America technologically strong by promoting science, technology, engineering and math careers, especially in underserved communities. More than 60 companies, government agencies, academic institutions and uniformed services collectively nominated hundreds of outstanding HENAAC candidates this year. Award winners represent Hispanic contributions at the highest levels of academia, government, military and corporate America.

Frank DelRio’s Notable Probes

Reliability of silicon thin films for electronics applications focused on the reliability of silicon films for next-generation microelectromechanical systems. Frank led the development of micromachined test specimens and contributed to the development of high-throughput “slack-chain” test specimens, facilitating thousands of fracture tests in record time.

Advent of additively manufactured metals for aerospace applications developed new methodologies to assess the small-scale mechanical and corrosion properties of additively manufactured metal components and used those capabilities to discover original materials and improve existing materials in high-temperature and corrosive environments for aerospace applications.

Development of additively manufactured polymers for regenerative medicine focused on examining properties of photopolymerized and other polymeric materials. The project facilitated a new measurement technique called sample-coupled-resonance photorheology to detect and remedy flaws that threaten the safety and reliability of additively manufactured products.

Stability of perovskite photovoltaic thin films for renewable energy focused on the stability of perovskite thin films in next-generation solar cells using coupled small-scale film characterization methods and full-scale device characterization methods.

Discovery of bioengineering strategies to control the self-organization of stem cells focused on the development of bioengineering strategies to extrinsically control the self-organization process of intestinal stem cells.

Advent of new protective and solid-lubricant coating layers for nanotechnology focused on the reliability of protective and solid-lubricant coating layers in nanoscale devices and electrical contacts via innovative small-scale tests to develop a mechanistic understanding of the failure modes.

Reliability of self-assembled monolayers in nanoelectromechanical systems focused on the reliability of self-assembled monolayers and other two-dimensional polymers using vacuum-based and liquid-cell atomic force microscopy, synchrotron-based structure measurements and strong industrial partnerships.

Development of small-scale mechanical microscopy methods for forensics applications focused on the development of broadly applicable, quantitative, traceable methods for applications of atomic force microscopy in forensics applications. This research demonstrated the effectiveness of atomic-force microscopy as a tool for forensic science via a case study on four types of evidence: trace evidence, questioned documents, impression and pattern evidence, and explosive materials.

Detection of adhesion and friction mechanisms in microelectromechanical systems focused on the roles of forces in the adhesion and friction of microelectromechanical systems, which identified a new and technologically important regime for thin-film adhesion.

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