Creating new materials to maintain existing infrastructure and for energy applications

In August of 2007, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Although the Minneapolis Department of Transportation replaced the bridge as quickly as possible, not many measures were taken to diagnose and prevent the failure of other US civil infrastructures. The appropriate maintenance of infrastructure nationwide and advancements in energy technologies are of extreme importance, as one holds the present intact and the other pulls the future closer. Dr. Olivia Graeve, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, is bridging the two fields by developing a variety of new materials for sensing damage in civil infrastructure as well as for facilitating hydrogen storage. By creating new materials using unconventional methods, Dr. Graeve envisions a brighter future and safe and a healthy homes for generations to come.

Dr. Graeve’s research focuses on fundamental studies of the synthesis and processing of nanostructured materials, including ceramic and metallic nanomaterials and amorphous/nanocrystalline composites for both structural and functional applications, with a special emphasis on electromagnetic multifunctional materials for sensors and energy applications. A particular highlight in her laboratory has been on creating efficient manufacturing technologies that allow the team to obtain new materials and new mixtures of materials in a few minutes or a few hours at most. The reduction of time also decreases the cost of production, and the team now has a faster system of testing and improving new materials. One of the technologies that the team has been targeting is spark plasma sintering, a technique that allows powders to become a dense solid material very quickly, which facilitates the development of turbines for engines, solid oxide fuel cells, materials for batteries, and more. Using high pressures as well as a high electric current to heat the material quickly, this technique allows materials to convert from loose powder to a solid piece of material, accelerating production and facilitating commercialization.

Current research projects include:

  • Detecting Damage on Civil Infrastructure: One area of research that Dr. Graeve is heavily involved with is maintaining nationwide infrastructure like buildings, roads, and bridges by detecting its damage before a catastrophe. Structures like bridges often have small cracks running through them, which, in the case of an earthquake or other instances of impact, will cause them to fall more easily. Therefore, the materials Dr. Graeve develops are able to expose small cracks by emanating blue light. This will offer an invaluable resource to predict potential harm and prevent further damage.

  • New Materials for Improving Energy Applications: It is widely known that carbon dioxide pollutes the atmosphere and contributes greatly to climate change. The production of fuel and cement, alongside many other materials necessary for infrastructure development, releases an immense amount of carbon dioxide. To address these problems, Dr. Graeve and her team are developing new materials that can replace gasoline in cars, coal in power plants, and other technologies that continually produce carbon dioxide.

  • Manufacturing Technologies for Shorter Time to Market: In order to facilitate quick commercialization of the new materials produced in her laboratory, Dr. Graeve and her team are developing novel manufacturing technologies that will reduce the time for production as well as the cost for consumers. By eliminating long processing time and increasing efficiency, Dr. Graeve is making her materials available for a variety of uses, including damage detection in civil infrastructure and hydrogen storage.

  • Outreach Programs for Minority Groups: As a Hispanic scientist in engineering, Dr. Graeve is reaching out to female high school students from Tijuana, her hometown, and from San Diego. During the summer of 2013, the students that Dr. Graeve recruited had an opportunity to work on a variety of projects for seven weeks. At the end of the program, the girls were able to present their work to their families and friends. By organizing these academic programs for female high school students, Dr. Graeve hopes to inspire and empower them to follow a similar path, expand the minority presence in the STEM fields, and foster friendships across borders.

Professor Graeve is an Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Structural Engineering from the University of California, San Diego, and a Ph.D. degree in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of California, Davis, in 1995 and 2001, respectively.

Dr. Graeve has received several prestigious awards including the National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2007, the American Ceramic Society’s 2010 Karl Schwartzwalder Professional Achievement in Ceramic Engineering Award, the 2006 Hispanic Educator of the Year award by the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers 2011 “Jaime Oaxaca” Award (the highest honor given by the Society) for her outstanding work towards the recruitment and retention of Hispanics into graduate programs and the professoriate. She was also recently named into the Tijuana Walk of Fame. Dr. Graeve has gained international recognition in the area of nanomaterials manufacturing. Her research expertise connects fundamental principles of materials processing with specific engineering needs, with special emphasis on electromagnetic multifunctional materials for sensors and energy applications. Her work is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and a variety of industrial partners.

Dr. Graeve is Past President of the National Institute of Ceramic Engineers (2012-2013) and the Chair of SHPE’s Graduate Programs (2009-2014). She has published over 60 papers and book chapters, which include research contributions and pedagogy and curriculum development contributions. Her work has been published in Chemistry of Materials, the Journal of the American Ceramic Society, Biomaterials, the Journal of Materials Research, Langmuir, Nanotechnology, the Journal of Applied Physics, the Journal of Physical Chemistry, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, and Optical Materials, among others, and have been presented in over 140 invited, contributed, and poster presentations at local, national, and international meetings.

Outside of her research, Dr. Graeve is a gardener who enjoys working with cacti, tulips, fruit trees, and roses.

For more information, visit her website at

UCSD Diversity Award, 2014

Tijuana Walk of Fame, 2014

International member (Level II) of the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia, Mexico, January 2013

B.J. Harrington Lecturer, McGill University, September 2012

Jaime Oaxaca Award, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, 2011

U.S. Patent No. 8,778,459 B2: "Corrosion resistant amorphous metals and methods of forming corrosion resistant amorphous metals."

J.C. Farmer, F.M.G. Wong, J.J. Haslam, N. Yang, E.J. Lavernia, C.A. Blue, O.A. Graeve, R. Bayles, J.H. Perepezko, L. Kaufman, J. Schoenung, and L. Ajdelsztajn. July 15, 2014.

U.S. Patent No. 8,557,208: “Combustion synthesis method and boron-containing materials produced therefrom."

O.A. Graeve, R. Kanakala, and G. Rojas-George. October 15, 2013.