New faculty member innovates at the cutting edge of aviation – literally

Posted: August 15, 2023
Nathan Webb profile photo

To Nathan Webb, new faculty member in the Aerospace Research Center, research is part challenge and part fun, but always exciting. He is a lead member of the Gas Dynamics and Turbulence Laboratory (GDTL), which is recognized internationally for enabling quieter, more capable and efficient aircraft by using novel devices to manipulate airflow.

Webb’s appointment as an assistant research professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the center’s home unit, will allow him to expand his research initiatives while continuing to mentor student researchers from the undergraduate to doctoral levels. He most recently served as a GDTL research scientist.

Making sweeping impacts

Central to the lab’s mission is improvement of aircraft performance and efficiency with minimal energy inputs. This is achieved using fundamental devices – called plasma actuators – that may be retrofitted on an air vehicle or integrated into an aircraft design. Plasma actuators change the flow of air through or around aircraft, resulting in increased efficiency and/or other benefits.

Two current projects highlight example applications of plasma actuators.

This summer the team is exploring the impacts of their custom plasma actuators on jet engine airflow with the intent to change jet exhaust direction. Current technology to accomplish this objective is heavy and mechanically complex. The developed method would be an all-electric, fixed geometry (i.e., simple, light) means to achieve more maneuverable aircraft and/or facilitate vertical take-off and landing.

Webb is also co-leading a study investigating the application of plasma actuators to closely spaced, supersonic, rectangular twin jets. The first aim is to reduce noise levels produced by twin jets, which will help protect United States Navy sailors' hearing and reduce noise pollution near military bases. Secondly, the same plasma actuators may be used to prevent aircraft damage by reducing near-jet pressure fluctuations.

Cultivating the next generation

GDTL members standing in the anechoic chamber
GDTL founder Mo Samimy, far left, and Nathan Webb, far right, with students Abhi Yarlagadda, Karli Katterle and Noah Hiler in the lab's anechoic chamber, where noise-related testing takes place.

Accompanying Webb in the lab is a team of eager undergraduate and graduate students. It is a natural fit for Webb to provide research mentorship along their journeys: Webb himself began his career as an undergraduate student research assistant in the very same lab where he now leads cutting-edge research efforts.

Professor Emeritus Mo Samimy, who established the GDTL and Aerospace Research Center, mentored Webb through not only his undergraduate degree, but also master’s and doctoral degrees. He has continued sharing his expertise as Webb has taken on increasing responsibilities – and job titles – over the past decade as a staff researcher and now faculty member.

Webb is forever grateful. “Mo is why I am where I am today. He has been an excellent mentor over the years, and I’ve enjoyed working with him and for him,” he said. “Many others have contributed over the years, as well.”

With a focus on teaching students how to think, Webb said he uses two tandem approaches in mentorship. “The first is to show them how to think through a problem systematically. The other is giving them a problem and letting them wrestle with it, though not without the opportunity for guidance. There’s a balance,” he said. He aims to “keep them working through a problem, rather than just telling them how to do it.”

Increasing altitude

At the end of the day, Webb says that he is in this field of work because he likes airplanes. “I am still an engineer,” he said with a laugh. “It’s really cool to see ideas working. [For example] it’s great to direct the jet without moving anything. Making those things a reality is exciting.”

He also noted the camaraderie and expertise shared among the multiple labs at the center.

“ARC is a great place to work. The groups all talk to each other; there’s a spirit of cooperation and lending,” he said. “Graduate students get to interact with other graduate students and it’s motivating to be around like-minded engineers.”

Admitted Ohio State students who would like to learn more about GDTL opportunities should send an email of interest and their CV to Webb at

by Holly Henley, communications specialist

Categories: FacultyResearch