Taylor Sparks: Making the Most of Materials

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I have really enjoyed teaching so far. I love identifying “gaps” in the curriculum where students can benefit from learning new skills, concepts and techniques. For example, I realized that students in the College of Engineering would benefit from increased exposure to entrepreneurship and technology commercialization so I’ve explored ways to modify teaching regular courses with this entrepreneurial emphasis.

 

University of Utah materials science and engineering assistant professor Taylor Sparks was born and raised in Utah. So when it was time for him to become a fulltime faculty member at a major university, there wasn’t a question about where he wanted to go — he wanted to come back home. As one of the newer members of the Materials Science & Engineering Department, Sparks is revolutionizing how ceramics can be used to help the world.

Q: You’re originally from Layton, Utah, but you’ve travelled around the world as part of your educational growth. What is your educational background and what were some of the international places you went to and why?

A: I received my bachelor’s in materials science and engineering right here at the University of Utah, my master’s in materials at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and my doctorate in applied physics at Harvard University. I then returned to UCSB for a postdoc stay at the Materials Research Laboratory.

My graduate work was sponsored by several National Science Foundation programs that fostered international collaboration in research. I spent three summers in China (two in Beijing at Tsinghua University and one in Shanghai at the Shanghai Institute of Ceramics, Chinese Academy of Science) as well as a month in Grenoble, France, using the neutron diffraction source available at the Institut Laue-Langevin. These research stays opened my eyes to new ways of doing science and gave me valuable connections and perspective.

Q: After working abroad and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, you decided you wanted to come back to Utah to live and work. What brought you back to the state, and why did you want to work at the University of Utah?

A: My wife and I are both from Utah, so being close to family is really important to us. However, the University of Utah is really the premier research institute in the Intermountain West. We have top-tier tools for research, industry partnerships, and really great students.

In addition, living in Utah means being close to some of the most breathtaking natural scenery around. When I’m not teaching or working with my research group there’s a good chance I’m hiking or climbing in these beautiful mountains and slot canyons.

Q: You have said that you became fascinated in high-tech ceramics while interning with a company in Salt Lake City. Why did you become so attached to the science of this kind of material, and what new benefits do you see ceramics bringing to the world?

A: I got really interested in ceramic materials because they have so many unique properties that aren’t found in other classes of materials. However, they are generally brittle and very difficult to process and manufacture, so oftentimes they are used only as a last resort. As structural materials they have exceptional hardness and strength, as well as high temperature resistance. They are even more exciting as functional materials because they have many fascinating optical, electronic, and magnetic properties. Ceramics are already making the impossible a reality with everything from Gorilla Glass on your smartphone to aerogel tiles protecting the space shuttle.

Q: What new and interesting technologies are emerging from your research so far in materials science, and do you think they can lead to practical applications soon?

A: In my group we have an emphasis on materials for energy applications. For example, there are many coal reservoirs that are too deep to safely, economically, and environmentally extract. In addition, burning coal has environmental repercussions. So one thing we are working on is the preparation of porous ceramic beads that can be used to house bacteria and other well stimulants. These beads are then the vehicles to deliver the bacteria to the coal seam to convert it to natural gas, a much better fuel source.

Another major effort in our group is the discovery of entirely new materials to make emerging renewable energy technologies like sodium batteries and thermoelectrics more viable and efficient for widespread application.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part of teaching so far, and what ideas do you like to implement in your teaching style to keep the students engaged and learning?

A: I have really enjoyed teaching so far. I love identifying “gaps” in the curriculum where students can benefit from learning new skills, concepts and techniques. For example, I realized that students in the College of Engineering would benefit from increased exposure to entrepreneurship and technology commercialization so I’ve explored ways to modify teaching regular courses with this entrepreneurial emphasis. In one of my classes, students are expected to learn the engineering content but present it in a “Shark Tank” pitch as if it were a new business venture. It’s been a really great way to enhance student engagement and active learning.

Q: You’ve starting advising some students on a new company they launched involving technology that can change the tint of windows to make the heating and cooling of homes more economical. How do these windows work and how did you and your students come up with the idea?

A: Actually, that company, Electrochrome LLC, was born as one of the “Shark Tank” pitches in my Introduction to Ceramics course. Rather than just doing a term project on a ceramic material, I had the students come up with a business concept involving a ceramic material as a central component. Their idea happened to have some really great commercial potential. Electrochromic films can be thought of as a type of lithium ion battery. You have a thin film, in this case a ceramic material, that can change its optical properties (i.e. transparency) as you introduce lithium ions into the structure with a small voltage. This process is reversible, switches almost instantaneously and can be controlled by a “smart home” automation system so that your thermostat can better control how heat enters or leaves the home.