Shooting for the moon with NASA

Freshman chemical engineering major Jacob Hewes describes himself as a self-starter.

“I’m always challenging myself to work harder and be the best at what I do,” he says. “When all my friends were looking for jobs in retail or customer service, I wanted to do something that I knew would be valuable to my development as a chemical engineer.”

During the summer entering his senior year of high school, Hewes was accepted into the UD K-12 Engineering Internship Program, which paired students with 10-week research projects.

“My stepdad works for W.L. Gore,” Hewes says. “So, Dr. Wagner took me under his wing due to my familiarity with polymers and fabrics.”

Working with fellow UD chemical engineering student Erin Hogan, Hewes and two other group members helped optimize a shear-thickening fluid formulation to use in the next generation of NASA spacesuits. “The spacesuits would be able to project astronauts in extravehicular activity from micrometeoroids and orbital debris puncturing their spacesuit,” he explains.

After graduating last spring, Hewes was welcomed back by Dr. Wagner who nominated him for the UD Summer Scholars Program. “He got me directly into the program as an incoming freshman, which made me the youngest summer scholar ever,” Hewes says. “Having his support from the hard work I did the previous summer made the application process very easy and I am so grateful for what he has done for me.”


The goal of the program project was to make a material that replicates the strength of Portland cement, but could be manufactured on the moon. Hewes spent his days reading publications on geopolymers and aluminosilicates, researching past projects from other universities. He was able to use that information to develop formulations of geopolymer cement that differed in type of activator solution, particle size and loading and type of regolith—AKA lunar or Martian soil—and repeated the process of pouring, curing and testing the strength of the cement, optimizing the various properties for improvement.

“Ideally, NASA will be able to manufacture our material on the surface of the moon and use it to build infrastructure for human habitats, helping to create permanent lunar colonies and eventually reach the surface of Mars,” says Hewes.

During the 10-week program, Hewes presented two deliverables. The members of the research group met weekly to discuss updates to the project and possible future steps. At the end of the program, Hewes presented his work at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in August 2019.


“The most rewarding aspect of my position was knowing that I was working with others to develop a new technology that could one day allow humans to build on the moon,” he says. “This area is vastly unexplored and is of major interest to NASA and I was helping discover new knowledge about geopolymers.”

Hewes says he was initially challenged by the chemistry behind the research, especially as an incoming freshman, but he quickly adapted to his environment and mastered the daily duties.

“Once I developed a strong understanding of the material, my research team and I were able to manipulate the formulations to optimize our results,” he says. “When I’m in the workforce, I hope to work in research and development, and this position has taught me so much. Each day, I was using different principles of chemistry and engineering, lots of which I learned on the job.”

Hewes plans to return to the Summer Scholars program next year, whether that means rejoining the Wagner Research Group or possibly pursuing a new avenue. “I am considering opportunities within pharmaceuticals and drug delivery, so I will be exploring other groups to see if there is a project that strikes my interest,” he says. “But the Wagner Research Group is always working to develop new cutting-edge technology ahead of its time, which is so interesting to me.”


To alleviate the pressure of the program, Hewes would go to the gym every day before entering the lab; he urges his fellow students to pick a hobby, as well. “Fitness helped me relieve the stress of school,” he says. “Everyone needs to find something that interests you outside of your educational field.”

Hewes advises other engineering students to consider programs and internships like his to build professional experience and connect with future employers. “As chemical engineering majors, we are challenged academically and oftentimes that makes us feel like it’s hard to take on a lot outside of the classroom,” he says. “I encourage my peers to seek opportunities like mine because it will improve your ability to understand hard material, manage your time and interact with professionals. You can acquire skills that employers are looking for and grow a network you can utilize down the line.”

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