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$1M grant to Ohio State, Penn State to aid medical implant research

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A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation is helping fund a collaboration between Ohio State and Pennsylvania State University researchers as they compile a national database of titanium alloys. The grant is part of the National Science Foundation’s Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future program, said Ji-Cheng Zhao, professor of materials science engineering and the project’s leader. The money will help support Zhao and two graduate students at OSU for three years as they conduct research and experiments.

The goal of the database is to provide the medical field with different compositions for titanium alloys that can be used most notably in medical implants, Zhao said. With research, experimentation and simulation testing, the project will help expedite the production of these materials.

“What we want to do is use these computational tools and experimental tools to build a very reliable database so that we can help design those types of titanium alloys for bones,” Zhao said.

The composites are created with the use of six different elements — titanium, tantalum, molybdenum, niobium, tin and zirconium, he said.

“We are only choosing six different elements in the periodic table because those elements don’t have an allergic reaction with human tissue,” Zhao said.

Implants of this type are used throughout the medical field, including in dentistry. OSU’s Dr. Edwin McGlumphy, professor of restorative and prosthetic dentistry, said titanium, tantalum and zirconium implants are currently used for two-part dental implants.

“The implant portion becomes the root that goes down in the bone, and then the prosthetic portion that looks like a tooth, acts like a tooth and chews like a tooth goes on top of the titanium alloy that’s in the bone,” McGlumphy said.

By using a process called diffusion multiple, researchers can explore the microstructure of different alloys created and determine the stability and rigidity of each, Zhao said. Diffusion multiple is a way of producing alloy samples quickly.

“We put a bunch of different elements together and heat them up to a high temperature, and the atoms will jump,” he said, “This atom jump creates a composition, or gradient, in the sample.”

With this method, each sample produces a large amount of gradients. By letting metals diffuse in this manner the researchers can observe each composition’s properties.

The researchers at OSU are in charge of the experimental process, while Penn State is providing computer simulations, Zhao said.

Zi-Kui Liu, professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, is helping to predict properties based on initial calculations. This includes, “computational modeling using data from first-principle calculations and experiments,” Liu said in an email.

The alloys developed will be a better match with human bones and allow for better elastic properties, he said.

The three-year research program is still in its infantile stages. After only one month into the program, Zhao said he’s confident the team will have a database built up by the third year.

“We’re going to deposit all the data into the national materials database. If we find some new compositions, we have a facility here at Ohio State that will be able to make it and test the modulus,” Zhao said.

Doctors will be able to extract information from this collection in order to produce implants with optimal strength and elasticity for human bone replacement, Zhao said.

There is about a 97 to 98 percent success rate with current dental implants, McGlumphy said, “but that still leaves two or three out of 100 that have problems, and we’d like to eliminate those.”

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