Think of explosives and diamonds, and you might conjure up an image of a safe-cracker or jewel thief. One image that probably doesn’t come to mind is Dr. Don Brenner, an easy-going professor of materials science with a mop of hair that he frequently has to brush off his forehead. But even the most successful cat burglars couldn’t touch the explosives and diamonds Brenner deals with in his research. That’s because they’re mere molecules that exist within a computer program.

Using computational science, Brenner can examine materials at the nanoscale level to determine why they fail and help devise better alternatives. “You can go in, look at all of the atoms and know exactly what they’re doing,” he says of his computer simulations. When he looks, for example, at a model of “energetic materials”—the military euphemism for explosives—he finds that the shape of crystals at the core of plastic explosives affects how shockwaves travel through the material. Adjusting the shape, he says, will allow the military to develop devices that won’t blow up if they are mishandled or dropped.

Many of Brenner’s research projects are defense-oriented. He attributes that to a combination of contacts he made during seven years working for the Naval Research Laboratory before coming to NC State and his understanding of the mission and needs of the military. The Army is funding the explosives research, while the Navy and the Air Force are backing projects that look at lessening the effects of atomic-scale friction on the performance of electromagnetic and electromechanical systems on ships and jets. “I just need a project for the Marines to round things out,” Brenner says with a laugh.

His work with diamonds, on the other hand, required the help of a Russian agent. A former post-doctoral research associate put him in contact with scientists in Moscow studying the ability of nanodiamonds to absorb toxins in animal feed. Brenner’s computer models will help design the diamonds—they measure about 10 to 20 carbon atoms across—so they can absorb as much harmful material as possible without touching the nutrients in the feed or adversely impacting an animal’s digestive system. “I enjoy having a range of projects to work on,” he says, noting he’s also studying materials with nanoscale pores that can be used for drug delivery. “It allows me a lot of flexibility and lets me be creative.”

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