Archive for October 2011
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You are browsing the archives of 2011 October.
A story from the Guardian (UK) written by John Kampfer has some interesting thoughts about why Germany now seems less prone to cyclical economic crises. In particular, Kampfer looks at this phenomenon through the lens of how that nation (and other parts of northern Europe) approaches engineering, manufacturing and the sciences in contrast to his home country. But the descriptions and lessons could, in my opinion, easily apply to the US.
According to Kampfer, while Britain (and the US) have been obsessing for several decades about targeting benefit, pension and unit labor costs, and at the same time shifting the core business structure from manufacturing to finance, Germany has taken a different route:
Instead, the German – and broader northern European – approach emphasises vocational training and apprenticeships, particularly in engineering, manufacturing and the sciences. It invests in research and development, and in strong education. With all of the above the UK government would agree – even if its policies have for decades not followed the theory.
Where the Brits and the Germans spectacularly part company is over employment. “Works councils” have been the staple of German industry, with unions represented by statute. Both sides actively work towards consensus, and strikes and other disputes take place on the rare occasion where agreement is not reached. The first response to the banking crisis of 2008 was for the two sides to come together and work out a deal that included cuts in working hours, and cuts in pay – across the board. As a result unemployment rose only fractionally.
Stuart Nathan over at The Engineer goes deeper on the topic:
[…] Germany just seems to get it right more often than the UK. From the success of the Fraunhofer Institutes — which we’re only just starting to emulate, over forty years after they were set up — to the ingrained importance of career progress for engineers, Germany consistently sets the pace in industrial innovation.
[…] And yet it’s true that Britain has a science base that puts the rest of Europe to shame; more papers published, with higher impact, across more sectors, than any other nation. Government asks why this is not exploited — well, anyone might think that the tiny proportion of GDP invested in R&D compared with our competitor nations could well have something to do with it.
The German economy has been through tough times, like every other economy. It’s been stagnant and slow-moving at times when the UK has boomed. But it always comes back. It comes back through solid, albeit sometimes unspectacular, performance by a strong manufacturing sector based around chemicals, materials, and automotive. German industry sees opportunities, such as in renewables, forms a strategy to exploit them, and does it, with government support. And as Kampfner argues today, it does that because of a philosophy that is built into German political thought and that is completely absent from the UK.
Nathan correctly adds, “It would be wrong to portray Germany as a paradaisical haven for engineers and engineering.” As the graph shows above, Germany has had its periods of economic volatility, too. But, after attending quite a few recent international science and technology conferences and speaking with many German and non-German scientists and engineers, I can report that I hear a lot of admiration for Germany’s current direction and priorities. Thus, I find it’s hard not to agree with a lot of what both of Nathan and Kampfner have to say. There is more of a sense of a reasoned and logical continuum among the universities, labs (public and nonprofit) and corporations that have the divisions of labor and alignment of incentives well allocated across the entire span of research (including basic research), development, demonstration and deployment.
Changes in the US don’t necessarily require more spending. According to the OECD (pdf), as a share of GDP, the US already spends more (2.62%) than Germany (2.53%) or the UK (1.78). A big problem is there is a lack of respect for reasoned, long-term strategies in the US, a weakness that means that much of the spending is not as effective as it could be and short-term thinking leads to being obsessed with finding the next bubble instead effectively leveraging our existing workforce, resources, talent and expertise. Xenophobia and a cultural acceptance of the loss of manufacturing bases and skills as just “world-is-flat” unavoidable collateral damage are enormously destructive in the US. Germany doesn’t have all the answers, but it also isn’t organizing its citizens and institutions to chase get-rich-quick schemes either.
The phenomenon of superconductivity was discovered in 1911. Fifty years of physics research followed, and in 1962 Westinghouse introduced the first commercial superconducting wire, a niobium-titanium alloy wire. Its critical temperature is in the 10 K range, and, to reach those temperatures, liquid helium is used as a coolant.
The next big breakthrough occurred in the mid-1980s with the discovery of so-called high-temperature conductivity in certain copper oxide-based compounds, where the critical temperatures are above 77 K. With critical temperatures that high, cheaper and easier-to-use liquid nitrogen can be used as the coolant. Cuprate superconducting compositions have critical temperatures that range from 92 K to 134 K.
It was an exciting discovery. Suddenly, there was talk of infrastructure-scale applications, like levitated light rail and electric power delivery. In the intervening 25 years, a lot more physics research has been done to understand the mechanisms of superconductivity, as well as materials science research to understand how it can be optimized and used.
This video is a very cool demonstration of levitation and shows several ways a superconducting puck can be manipulated through the mechanism of quantum locking (also called flux pinning). My grasp of quantum pinning is that magnetic flux lines, which normally permeate in parallel through a material, are guided instead through the crystallographic dislocations, which “pins” the flux lines to certain points. The pinned points of the puck couple with the magnetic track sort of like an invisible strut that locks the puck to the track. The trailing stream of evaporating liquid nitrogen gives the puck an ethereal, fantastical quality.
The material is not specified, but it’s presumed to be a ceramic cuprate composition. It was done by the Superconductivity Group at Tel-Aviv University and is provided via the Association of Science-Technology Centers. A longer video with more explanations of the physics can be viewed here.
Hat tip: Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen.
University of Illinois at Pennsylvania State University
Oct. 29, 3:30 p.m., ET
I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an undergrad because it met my three criteria: I was accepted, it was affordable and it was far enough from home. Much later, I realized I had stumbled and bumbled my way into one of the best engineering schools in the country.
I decided on engineering out of stubbornness. None of the girls in my high school class were considering STEM careers, but most of the boys were. So, that was that. (My journey to ceramic engineering was thought through a little more sensibly.)
In my first job, I had the good fortune to work with a couple of great recent graduates of Penn State. Penn State had just clinched its first national championship by defeating Georgia at the 1983 Sugar Bowl, and there was plenty of football chatter to go around. One of those guys, Jeff Swab, distinguished himself by being first in line for tickets to the Sugar Bowl. Jeff has since distinguished himself in many other ways and is a leading expert on ceramic armor and a frequent contributor to ACerS meetings and publications.
Penn State became the 11th of the 12 teams that comprise the Big Ten Conference in 1990. Illinois is a charter member of the conference, which dates back to 1896.
Saturday is the 19th meeting of these two teams, and Penn State holds a dominating 14-4 record. But, last year the Illini handed the Nittany Lions a searing 33-13 loss, the first Illinois victory at Beaver Stadium. Both teams are strong in the Big Ten, but Illinois is hungrier as it looks for a rebound Saturday after losing the last two games.
My pick? Victory, Illinois! Varsity! (From “Hail to the Orange,” Illinois’ Alma Mater song. “We love no other”)
The home team
Joe Paterno, the “80-is-the-new-50″ head coach of the Penn State football, doesn’t tolerate end zone celebration shenanigans when the team scores a touchdown. He says, “Act like you’ve been there before.”
He makes a good point, and one that is generally relevant. If you prepare well, work hard and have a clear goal, why should success be surprising? It’s a philosophy the department of materials science and engineering is embracing as they grow and adapt.
The materials science and engineering program at Penn State is arguably one of the best in the country, and it is especially strong in ceramic materials. Over the last ten years, the undergraduate enrollment has grown from 95 to 175. This is an impressive accomplishment considering that the department has plenty of competition from the other 20 or so engineering programs at Penn State, and considering that the department is not housed in the College of Engineering, but in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.
Prof. Allen Kimel says the placement of the department in CEMS is a challenge, but “the college is a really unique blend of engineering and physical sciences, and that strengthens us.”
It does mean, though, that the department has to work a little harder to get the attention of prospective students, but once it does, Kimel says students will respond with “Oh my, there’s materials science!” Students hear about the program through word-of-mouth, introductory courses and open houses. Nearly 40 percent of the students that graduate with BS MSE degrees start in another program. Kimel says ASM’s Materials Camp is proving to be a great way to get high schoolers thinking about materials, too.
Another unique attribute of Penn State is that is has 19 Commonwealth campuses and as much as 27 percent of the student body transfers to the main campus after two years elsewhere. The department maintains close connections to the six regional campuses whose programs lead to materials science.
It was an open house that drew in senior Erica Marden, “I went to an open house and was fascinated with the biomaterial and noninvasive drug delivery research projects in the department.” She continues, “I went into MatSE because of an interest in biomaterials, and I have continued to pursue that interest by doing research involving polymers for biological applications.”
Marden’s journey illustrates an emerging trend among undergraduates. Today’s students are motivated by the kind of problems they want to work on, often with grand-scale impacts like energy or biomedicine, or by the technologies they want to learn more about like nanotechnology. Kimel says, “Students don’t come in saying ‘Wow - ceramics!’ but ‘How are materials applied to the problems I care about?’”
Recognizing this, the department is in the process of overhauling the curriculum. The new curriculum will continue to provide depth for which it’s known, while increasing versatility and flexibility. Parts of the new curriculum are in place now, and full rollout is expected in the next academic year.
Penn State’s long standing tradition of the senior thesis will continue, and there are several pathways open to getting the research done. The most direct pathway is to work in a faculty research group, typically for two semesters. Marden has been an active student researcher for four years and says, “The best part of Penn State’s program is the quality of research and renowned faculty paired with the amazing staff and small size of the department.”
The new curriculum opens an option for students to work on engineering team-based projects in the College of Engineering’s Learning Factory, which is expected to appeal to the 50 percent of students that go to work in industry after graduation.
Adventurous students may choose to go abroad for a research experience. The department has exchange partnerships with 14 institutions in 10 countries. The focus is research - no coursework - and about a dozen students per year are involved, half from Penn State going abroad and half coming to Penn State from abroad.
No doubt, Paterno would be pleased to know that the MSE undergrads know how to handle themselves in their arena: the lab. This video clip on lab safety tells the story!
The department has sprouted a few athletes over the years including Big 10 triple-jump champion, Clarence Smith, who now works at Boeing, and the men’s volleyball head coach, Mark Pavlik. One suspects they would have agreed with Marden, though, “Penn State football is so much fun, especially during White Out games. I’m hoping that we go out with a bang for my senior year!”
Faculty engaged in ceramic research include Paul Brown (Fellow), David Green (Fellow and editor of JACerS), John Hellmann (Fellow), Kimel, Gary Messing (ACerS past-president and Fellow), Carlo Pantano (Fellow), Clive Randall (Fellow and 2011 Friedberg lecturer) and Susan Trolier-McKinstry (ACerS’ Ceramic Education Council 2011 Outstanding Educator awardee).
“Without materials, there is no engineering,” senior Xiaolin Zhang said in an email. It’s an idea that seems to resonate among undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Just under 400 students are enrolled in the MatSE department at Illinois, making it the largest department in the country for undergraduate materials education. (GA Tech is the largest based on number of faculty - 57 to Illinois’ 26 - but draws 100 fewer students.)
The department is “on its game,” when it comes to recruiting. It starts reaching out to high school students in their junior year, sending brochures to prospective students with strong ACT scores and sponsoring open houses for candidates and their families in the fall. This year, the prospective student open house attracted 79 students and, with their familial entourages along, 230 people went on undergrad-led tours of the buildings and labs, saw demonstrations, talked to professors and enjoyed the hospitality of the department.
Also important to getting the word out is the long-standing Engineering Open House tradition. Held every March, all College of Engineering departments throw open the doors and strut their stuff. Cindy Brya, an administrator in the department, says the “hallways are jam packed with student projects and visitors.”
EOH was Zhang’s introduction to materials science. Then a freshman, she said the EOH “exhibits from the Materials Science department interested me a lot with a broad range of applications. Considering my interests and strengths in math, chemistry and physics, I though materials science would be ideal for me.”
The first three years of the curriculum are uniform, and in the fourth year students take coursework in an area of concentration. There are five: biomaterials, ceramics, electronic materials, metals and polymers. However, students can explore interests long before the fourth year by participating in undergraduate research. Zhang, for example, has been working on 3D polymeric scaffolds for tissue engineering applications. Describing the value of the experience, she says it “further strengthens my research ability and critical thinking skills, which prepare me to become a better researcher in graduate school.”
Brya says abut 40 percent of graduates go to professional or graduate school. Zhang points out that joining a research group can help students discern their next steps. “Many students join a research group sometime during their four-year study and will either find their research interest or decide a better niche for them would be in industry. The resources are always available and are to the student’s benefit.”
Research opportunities can have spillover effects, though. Last year and this year, the Illinois contingent to MS&T has been mixing things up at the annual Mug Drop contest with mugs made of geopolymers. See how in this video segment from MS&T 2011.
Like many MatSE departments, the Illinois department is the result of a marriage between metallurgical engineering and ceramic engineering. The ceramic engineering heritage lives on in the “ceramic pig” tradition. “Back in the day,” the Cer. E. department used to celebrate the end of the year with a pig roast. This evolved into the “Pig Roast” event of the 1970-1980s era, where students put on good-natured skits to commemorate the year’s events and rib the professors. Everyone looked forward to bringing home a handmade ceramic pig. Today, students make ceramic pigs, which are given as mementos to deserving faculty and staff at the annual awards banquet.
Of this weekend’s game, Zhang says, “I am expecting an exciting game this week against Penn State.”
Me, too. Go Illini!
Faculty that focus on ceramic materials are Shen Dillon, Trudy Kriven (Fellow), Jennifer Lewis (Fellow), Lane Martin and Jian-Min Zuo.
During last week’s plenary presentation at MS&T’11, NSF director Subra Suresh mentioned several times that additional information would be forthcoming in regard to funding opportunities for the high-priority Materials Genome Initiate. In particular, Suresh alerted the audience to the imminent release of an NSF “Dear Colleague Letter” on the topic.
I’ve been out of the country for the last week, but today I noticed that the letter, “Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future,” has now been posted (signed by Edward Seidel and Thomas Peterson, Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Engineering Directorates, respectively) and it is definitely worth reviewing the DMREF post if you haven’t done so already.
Part of the emphasis in the letter, as we heard at MS&T’11’s special MGI session, is on developing a common toolset, which can be used across the entire materials discovery-to-deployment continuum, that integrates “advanced computational methods with data-enabled scientific discovery and innovative experimental techniques in such a manner as to revolutionize our approach to materials research and engineering.”
The overarching deliverable of the DMREF is to have multiple breakthroughs in developing and engineering materials to specified functions or properties from first principles.
Here is the real meat of NSF interests discussed in the letter:
• “Activities that accelerate materials discovery and development by building the fundamental knowledge base needed to progress towards designing and making a material with a specific and desired function or property from first principles’”
• “Proposals that seek to advance fundamental materials understanding across length and time scales to elucidate the effects of microstructure, surfaces, and coatings on the properties and performance of engineering materials. The ultimate goal is to enable control of material properties through design via the establishment of the interrelationships between constitution, processing, structure, properties, performance and process control;”
• Bridging, collaborative research “and iterative process where computation guides experiments and theory, while experiments and theory advance computation;” and
• Designs that address the “recyclability and sustainability of materials.”
NSF is also encouraging collaborations with industry, national laboratories, engineering partners or other organizations.
Seidel and Peterson make a point of noting that DMREF is not a stand-alone program and will work side-by-side with two other programs: Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry and the Software Infrastructure for Sustained Innovation.
One important thing is that the window for submitting proposals is coming up quickly: Jan. 15, 2012-Feb. 15, 2012.
Also, we are hoping to be able to post a video interview we conducted with Cyrus Wadia, from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who is emerging as one of the most articulate spokespersons on the MGI concepts, goals and structures.
Here’s what we’re hearing (some info from news releases):
Kyocera announced that is has supplied 8 solar modules for a new 2 megawatt solar power plant which sits over four acres of unused farmland in northwestern France. The plant was officially inaugurated on October 21 in Distré, in the French department of Maine-et-Loire. The large-scale installation is a flagship project in terms of sustainability, and the Kyocera solar modules produce an average total power output of 2,200,000-kW/hours per year—equal to the average annual energy consumption of 900 local households. The clean energy power plant will offset roughly 700 tons of CO2 per year.
Earlier this year, Jay McHarg, president of the Rochester-based company American Aerogel, received a letter from the Department of Environmental Conservation that made his head spin. The agency was asking McHarg to pay thousands of dollars in fees on hazardous wastewater disposal, a by-product of his company’s production of custom-made packing material. But the fees were not from this year, or even the year before—but from three years ago.
DOE has issued a Funding Opportunity Exchange solicitation for proposals to support applied research into technologies that have the potential to dramatically increase efficiency, lower costs, and deliver more reliable performance than existing commercial and near-commercial concentrating solar power systems. This FOE seeks to develop innovative concepts that could lead to performance breakthroughs like improving efficiency and temperature ranges, and demonstrate new approaches in the design of collectors, receivers, and power cycle equipment used in CSP systems.
Corning Inc. announced the commercial launch of Corning Lotus Glass, an environmentally friendly, high-performance display glass developed to enable cutting-edge technologies, including organic light-emitting diode displays and next generation liquid crystal displays. Corning Lotus Glass helps support the demanding manufacturing processes of both OLED and liquid crystal displays for high performance, portable devices such as smart phones, tablets, and notebook computers. Corning Lotus Glass is formulated to perform exceptionally well in low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide thin-film transistor backplane manufacturing environments.
Hydro-Québec (Canada) and Technifin (South Africa) have entered into an intellectual property collaboration agreement relating to the licensing of their respective intellectual property in lithium titanate spinel oxide technologies, notably for Li-ion battery applications. The Hydro-Québec/Technifin LTO patents comprise two groups of patent rights affording extensive worldwide protection for LTO technology. The first group, the Technifin patents, cover the basic use in Li-ion cells of the LTO anodes invented in 1994 by Michael Thackeray while at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. The second group covers the potential of LTO that was recognized in 1995 by Karim Zaghib at Hydro-Québec’s research institute, IREQ.
Morgan Thermal Ceramics now offers Superwool Plus high temperature fiber insulation. Used for repairing and lining aluminum furnaces, it reduces the frequency of relining operations when compared to the industry standard, and improved insulation efficiency results in decreased operating costs. Also, all Superwool insulating fibers are non-wetting to molten aluminum. This reduces the concerns about metal adherence and penetration into the fibers, which is particularly useful in aluminum smelting and casting operations where molten metal is present.