Since April, N.C. State University researcher Hans Conrad has co-authored articles in two journals on discoveries that could revolutionize the manufacture of ceramics.
He also helped write a paper that will be published in September as a book chapter. The topic is a method for making soft metals like copper stronger than steel.
Not bad for a guy who has been retired since 1993 and works for no salary, sometimes paying research assistants out of his pocket.
At age 88, Conrad, a professor emeritus in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is one of the world’s oldest active researchers. He has been making important discoveries longer than most of his peers have been alive.
And he shows no signs of slowing.
This past week, Conrad wrote a grant proposal for a company that makes body armor used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s interested in having him research whether his methods can improve the bullet-stopping ceramic plates and make them cheaper to build.
And he has just learned that he won a new grant to study ways to improve techniques for forging metals.
Science, he said, keeps him going.
“It’s been my life since I was a teenager in high school, and it’s what I love to do,” he said. “I would feel at a loss without it.”
Jay Narayan, an NCSU colleague, was the lead author on the paper with Conrad on making soft metals stronger. Narayan calls Conrad a role model. “He’s a very good thinker,” he said. “And I think he has fun doing science.”
Conrad, a cheerful man with a gentle voice, began his career 67 years ago in the middle of World War II when, working for Alcoa, he helped develop an aluminum alloy for use in aircraft. It’s still crucial in the aerospace industry.
He later worked on a government effort to develop nuclear-powered aircraft; a project that became the forerunner of the space shuttle; the development of the laser; an artillery piece that uses electro-magnetic force rather than explosives; and a method of fixing broken parts in the vacuum of space simply by pushing them back together (yes, “cold welding” works).
Most of his career, Conrad has worked with metals. His latest work, though, has focused on ceramics, in partnership with a postdoctoral researcher, Di Yang. Ceramics are made by heating the ingredients, and Conrad and Yang found that they can be made stronger, at lower temperatures and more quickly by placing the raw materials in a weak electrical field.
This is huge news in the fast-developing world of ceramics, materials which now play a role in things as varied and important as engines, fuel cells and solar panels.
“The payoff for manufacturers and society could be really big because some of these materials require huge amounts of energy,” said Peter Wray, communications director for the American Ceramic Society, which has been following Conrad and Yang’s work and is about to publish some of it.
Source: Jay Price, News & Observer. Raleigh, NC.
Photo Credit: John Rottet