From left: Eastern Mennonite University students Levi Peachey-Stoner, Jacob Horsley, Reuben Peachey-Stoner and Douglas Nestor developed materials in the first phase of a Jeffress Grant-funded research project led by Professor Stefano Colafranceschi. (Photos by Rachel Holderman)

Jeffress Grant funds interdisciplinary STEM research to create new particle physics detector technology

A team of four Eastern Mennonite University students, with principal investigator Professor Stefano Colafranceschi, are contributing to the design and implementation of new particle physics detector technology. 

The funding for the project comes from a $100,000 Jeffress Grant, one of 15 awarded in fall 2020 to researchers at colleges and universities in Virginia. Jeffress Grants fund one-year pilot studies in chemical, medical or other scientific fields, and must include “development of innovative interdisciplinary strategies that integrate computational and quantitative methods across a broad range of scientific disciplines.” 

Professor Stefano Colafranceschi is principal investigator for the Jeffress Grant-funded project.

 Colafranceschi’s project – focused on the application of 3D printing to technology to physics instrumentation – combines engineering, chemistry/material science, computer science, and physics, and links to his current and past research collaborations at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland and Fermi National Laboratory. 

The long-term goal is to develop a new and more efficient generation of particle detectors, with implications for similar technologies such as cargo imaging, general-purpose scanners and tomography machines used in the healthcare field.

Seniors Reuben Peachey-Stoner and Douglas Nester, junior Jacob Horsley and first-year Levi Peachey-Stoner have been working on one of the first objectives: to create “3D printed materials that are mechanically more resistant/resilient and electrically more stable,” Colafrancheschi explains. 

The Peachey-Stoner brothers mixed different concentrations of graphite and polylactic acid polymer, also known as PLA. 

The 3devo filament extruder with spools of filament in EMU’s lab.

“PLA is a type of thermoplastic that is more environmentally friendly,” said Reuben Peachey-Stoner. “It’s a popular 3D printer material, but we are modifying it by doping it with graphene. Then the batches would go into this 3Devo filament extruder, which melts beads of plastic into a strand of a consistent diameter.” 

The filament spools were then passed to Horsley and Nester, who used the Makerbot 3D printer to manufacture sheets of material. “Douglas and I were essentially printing out the same area of plastic every time, but trying to get it as consistent with the technique and the configuration settings for temperature and speed and how fast the printer moves, that sort of thing. Eventually, we were dealing with the limitations of the machine to try to get a more precise print every time to be exact for what we need to move on to with the rest of the project.”

A new and more advanced Fusion3 printer, funded by the grant, arrived last week, which will allow the experiment to move forward. “We’ve pretty much maxed out all the settings and combinations on this printer,” Horsley said, “so we’re pretty excited about the new one.”

The group would have shared the results of their research at several conferences this spring, which were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research team displays samples of experimental material developed in EMU’s lab.

Nester, who plans on working as a software engineer next year, says this is just one of several research projects he’s worked on while studying computer science at EMU (he was also involved in the fall 2020 weather balloon experiment).

“As an engineer, a lot of the job requirements are to bring in your wider knowledge and use it to solve various problems, so I think this job has given me a lot of practice with problem-solving,” Nester said.

Horsley switched his major from engineering to peace and development, and is interested in community organizing or aid work. But he sees great value in how his skill with technology and problem-solving may be beneficial in the future. 

Reuben Peachey-Stoner, a chemistry major hoping to be employed in pharmaceuticals, says the opportunity to work with a researcher like Colafranceschi has been a special opportunity. Enjoying the collaboration was part of the fun.

“He knows what he’s doing and he’s very personable,” said Horsley. “He’s really understanding if you don’t quite understand to the level that he does and he’s willing to explain and assist…I’ve always thought of it as he [worked at CERN] and now he’s here teaching me how to do these simple things. And it all starts with those simple things. There is a path to doing something similar and it starts with the basic stuff.”