Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Mines Student Wins Prestigious NASA Grant to Study Welding Process for Possible Use in Space

Kaytie Barkley, a mechanical engineering graduate student at South Dakota Mines, uses this ultrasonic welder to fuse two pieces of plastic in a university lab. Barkley won a prestigious NASA grant to undertake the research. The process she is studying could someday be used to build spacecraft.


South Dakota Mines student Kaytie Barkley is researching a process called ultrasonic welding that utilizes low amplitude, high frequency vibrations to fuse two pieces of plastic together. This type of welding could someday be used to build things like spaceships out of lightweight but strong polymer or composite material.

“The sonic welder we use operates at 20 kilohertz. This frequency makes the plastic target vibrate so fast that it melts the material and fuses it together,” says Barkley. 

NASA has recognized Barkley’s work with a prestigious Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity award of $68,924. Barkley finished her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Mines in 2020, and this research is part of her master’s degree.

Dr. Cassandra Birrenkott, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Mines, is Barkley’s major professor. “Kaytie is very deserving of this prestigious NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity,” says Birrenkott. “This year, only 58 awards were made throughout the US, and we are very proud that Kaytie’s research was selected to be supported by NASA. It is great to see Kaytie’s hard work and high level of commitment to her graduate education and research recognized by NASA through this award."

Barkley’s research could yield new methods for building everything from automobiles to spacecraft and other items needed in space. “It costs about $10,000 to ship a pound of weight into space. So, if we can come up with lightweight materials to replace heavier weight metals there would be a lot of cost savings,” says Barkley.

The process of ultrasonic welding of plastics is still being understood. Two ultrasonic welds often come out different even when completed under the same conditions. “Right now, the flow of the material in an ultrasonic weld is unpredictable. So, we are trying to figure out a joint design that will yield more consistent high-quality welds,” says Barkley. “There are additional challenges when changing materials, such as moving from a simple uniform polymer to a composite material which may include imbedded glass fibers. So, there are a lot of exciting challenges to tackle in this research.” 

Barkley credits her success to inspiration and support from her advisors -- Dr. Birrenkott and Dr. Prasoon Diwakar, an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at South Dakota Mines. “I immensely appreciate both of my advisors. They saw potential in me and encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree. They are great at challenging me to do difficult tasks and encouraging me to expand my knowledge, but also patient with me as I go through the learning curves associated with doing research,” says Barkley.

Barkley got interested in studying mechanical engineering thanks to encouragement from her father and her brother, who is also a Mines alumnus. “I love math and I enjoy a challenge,” she says. “Especially challenging problems that continue to evolve during the process of solving them. I think STEM is great for anyone who finds satisfaction in pursuing a good challenge, and who enjoy working with others of the same mindset.”



About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu