Modelling mastery

Professor Irina Belova is recognised as one of the world's leading authorities on the theory of mass and heat transport in materials.

Irina BelovaThe transport of matter and heat within solids has a profound effect on the functional properties of engineering components.

Whether those materials are developed for commercial, industrial or biomedical purposes, conventional development of technologies has required time and cost consuming empirical evidence approaches.

Irina and her colleagues at the University of Newcastle Centre for Mass and Thermal Transport in Engineering Materials use state of the art computational techniques to fill knowledge gaps related to mass transport and thermal transport.

Making use of a large network of collaborators - both local and international, solid modeling and judiciously targeted experiments, Irina and her team aim to drastically reduce the time and cost of the development and implementation of ideas.

"We find outcomes for fundamental problems, usually with our collaborators," Irina says.

I am charged with the task of ensuring the mathematical modelling is logical and correct.

Irina and her team are currently focusing on four large projects with international collaborators. All of the projects centre around metallic alloys and their suitability for mechanical and biomaterial applications.

REVOLUTIONISING ALLOYS

Irina is leading a project in collaboration with Professor Yongho Sohn from the University of Central Florida, and Professor Zi-Kui Liu from Pennsylvania State University, exploring high entropy alloys (HEAs).

"Engineering alloys have conventionally been made up of one base metal that forms the matrix, with another three or four metals as additives," Irina explains.

"It was always assumed that adding more components, or balancing proportions, would cause instability."

However, it has recently been discovered that HEAs, made from between five and thirteen components that are mixed in nearly equal proportions, are not only stable but have excellent mechanical properties including exceptional strength, hardness and wear resistance.

"All their properties depend almost uniquely on transport properties – mass transport and thermal transport. And this is exactly what we are good at," Irina confirms.

"Fast tracking the development of HEAs, and optimising their properties is being severely restricted by the absence of any reliable information about mass transport. We are filling that gap."

DEMYSTIFYING THERMOTRANSPORT

Irina is also co-lead on a project with Professor Graeme Murch, modeling liquid alloys by advanced computational means in collaboration with Professor Andreas Meyer and his team at the German Space Center in Cologne.  Also joining the team from Newcastle, are Dr Alexander Evteev and Dr Elena Levchenko.

A lack of understanding of the coupling between thermal and mass flows, called thermotransport, is preventing access to a satisfactory description of the properties of liquid metal alloys.

Thermotransport experiments are difficult because of the confounding effects of convection and the difficulty of working with liquids, often at very high temperatures.

These difficulties have led to data gaps and conflicting outcomes from experimentation undertaken by different groups.

In turn, this is holding back technological progress involving these alloys, such as their solidification to form solid engineering alloys.

"This project aims to redress the lack of a general theory that can both marshal the experimental facts together and provide an understanding of liquid metal alloys that has real predictive power," Irina discloses.

INCREASING SOLAR POWER EFFICIENCY

A third project, also with collaborators Dr Alexander Evteev, Dr Elena Levchenko and Professor Graeme Murch, is further expanding the knowledge of the properties of liquid metal alloys - in this instance, to assess the suitability of liquid alloys for use in concentrating solar power (CSP) systems.

Collaborators on this project include Professor Zi-Kui Liu from Pennsylvania State University.

"The superior thermophysical properties of liquid metals, which include high boiling temperatures and high thermal conductivity, make them a potentially advanced heat transfer medium compared to state-of-the-art heat transfer fluids such as molten salts," she asserts.

Irina is using computational modelling to identify the most suitable liquid alloys that meet targets for thermophysical properties of heat transfer fluids within CSP technologies.

"By allowing higher receiver flux capabilities, the next generation CSP systems could achieve a much higher efficiency and therefore reduce the overall cost of electricity production."

MAXIMISING METALLIC FOAMS

Irina is also working on an intensive research project being led by the University of Newcastle's Dr Thomas Fiedler and Professor Graeme Murch.

Dr Fiedler and Mr Mehdi Taherishargh have created a perlite-metal syntactic foam, a superior lightweight material that combines reliable mechanical properties with low manufacturing cost.

"Thomas has found a way to combine perlite with aluminium in a way that the aluminium will hold the structure whilst the particles will be dispersed on the inside," Irina conveys.

"Not only is this material lighter than water, but it is more reliable and absorbs energy better than its competitors."

Perlite is a volcanic material and a waste product of the mining industry, so it can be sourced easily and cost effectively.

This collaboration also employs the application of combined micro-computed tomography and finite element analyses for the non-destructive characterisation of cellular metals.

DESERVING RECOGNITION

Irina left Russia in 1993 and was quickly granted a permanent Australian residency visa and later citizenship on the strength of her skills and training.

"I started looking for research jobs as soon as I arrived and applied for a position here at the University that was specifically designed for women with a career interruption," Irina recalls.

"Since then I have managed to do well in research; I have been given a number of ARC funded fellowships and have been promoted to professor."

Perhaps 'managing to do well in research' is somewhat of an understatement.

In her field, Irina has published over 275 international peer-reviewed journal papers (95 in the last five years), 11 book chapters, and presented almost 50 Keynote Lectures at conferences and given a further 150 supporting conference papers. She is also one of the three Editors-in-Chief of the book series: Diffusion Foundations.

Irina is the Joint-Director of the Centre for Mass and Thermal Transport in Engineering Materials, and the Co-Director of the Priority Research Centre for Geotechnical and Materials Modelling.

In 2001, in recognition of the significance and impact of her published contributions to the theory of mass transport in alloys, Irina became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious higher doctorate degree Doctor of Science by the University of Newcastle.

Other accolades Irina has been awarded include the Russell Prize for 'Outstanding Young Researcher' by the Australian Academy of Science, a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship, an Australian Professorial Fellowship, a Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (Level 3) from the Australian Research Council and the Einstein-Smoluchowski award.

A busy schedule of research, writing, administration and teaching certainly makes Irina cherish her down time in her adopted country.

"I think Australia is a wonderful country," Irina declares.

"We have a beautiful 12-acre property near Paterson. Just this morning and right outside the kitchen window there was a mother kangaroo with a baby Joey in her pouch. Simply charming and a great way to start the day."

"This is a great country, my second country and my home. I hope to keep working here until my last days."

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.