21st Century Renaissance Engineers and Research

You’ve probably heard talk of Renaissance Engineers, seen the College of Engineering Eminence Arrow design around campus, and heard the mantra of “to solve the technological challenges of the 21st century, the world needs engineers with a foundation of technical knowledge strengthened with the skills of research, innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership and lifelong learning.” But what does that mean to you as a first- or second-year engineering student? How does research and innovation affect you and your life?

We talk to a couple of Chemical Engineering professors who detail the impact that their involvement in research has had in their own lives and careers.

Holly Stretz is an associate professor in Chemical Engineering, with a B.S. in Chemistry from Texas A & M University, an M.S. from Texas State University, and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from University of Texas at Austin. Stretz’s specialties include nanoparticle research, particularly in hydrogel nanocomposites for medical diagnostic work.

Joe Biernacki is a university distinguished faculty fellow and professor, with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University and a doctorate from Cleveland State University. Biernacki’s focal points have been stoichiometry and hydration kinetics of Portland cement and biomass pyrolysis of organic materials.

COE: What are some innovations that have come along in the last ten or so years, ones that have hit the mass market, that are the results of research in chemical engineering?

HS: Well, one of the first applications of nanotechnology was in a timing belt developed by Toyota in 1980. Everyone knows that timing belts are elastic and will slip or stretch over time, so you have to figure out a tensioner or adjuster to take the lash out of it. You can look at the inherent properties in a material and use nanocomposites to deal with the one bad property, and Toyota developed a material for their timing belts that would never stretch or slip, regardless of wear or heat. It used to be that tennis balls wouldn’t last that long before they’d go dead; now Wilson tennis balls have nanoparticles that form a barrier that retains the gas inside the ball. Those same barrier properties are used in Bridgestone’s rubber compounds for tires, for a tire that will retain its inflation and won’t go down as quickly. Proper inflation, of course, has a huge impact on fuel economy, making this an advancement that could have massive implications for society in terms of energy independence. Also, it’s been found that fires in multistory buildings primarily spread when the cable jackets and insulation of the building’s wiring catch fire…and nanocomposites are being used as a fire retardant in cable jackets. Polyurethane seat cushions now incorporate nanoparticles that slow the heat release rate, which in a building fire can give you more time to get out of the building. These are all perfect examples of how engineers can look at problems, look at what others might have done before and improve on their work. In the bigger sense, it could end up being the type of thing that even prevents people from taking up arms against each other.

COE: So how long have you been doing research?

HS: Probably about fifteen years. In industry, I was doing new-product development in plastics, before I went back and got my Ph.D. I used to work for Celanese and the Ph.D.s would come down at the Summit, New Jersey plant with a new formulation, and I would have to figure out the scale to produce 10,000 pounds of it in a day.

JB: For 15 years, I worked for British Petroleum before I became an academic, working as an engineer in research and development. In those days BP owned Kennecott Copper, who in turn owned The Carborundum Company…we developed new technologies to support their business, with silicon carbide tubes and rods and other products. I was in materials processing and wrote my doctoral research on growth of silicon carbide single crystals; we developed a process for developing continuous silicon carbide tubes, and continuous sintered silicon carbide fibers, which nobody else was doing anywhere. But you know, in the long run I wanted more independence, and I had the sense, the avocation or calling that I was a teacher…I mean, my job was interesting and challenging, but it didn’t present that independence that I wanted. I look forward to going to class every day!

COE: I realize that this is a pretty broad question, but how would you say that research has really changed your life and your career path?

HS: When I was in the plant, I loved working there. I loved working on a new product and being able to say, “hey, this is something cool that I did, or I was on the team that developed that”…for example, I was on the team that created the little black hubs for Construct toys…I was also on the team that developed the shell for the Bic lighter. I really enjoyed that work and the technological challenges that went with it, but the whole time that I was in the plant I had questions in the back of my head, asking “why did it work that way?” There wasn’t any easy way for me to answer those questions until I went back to school. Doing research, I get to see things that nobody else in the world has seen and do things nobody else has done, and it’s awesome.

JB: It gives me a chance to play with the best, and as a researcher, I don’t want to just be hunkered down and isolated in my laboratory, I want my work to be well-known, and playing with the best forces me to up my own game as well. It’s a great experience to be able to do this. I’ve been able to go to wonderful places in the world to organize workshops and that sort of thing, and work with some great minds. I took a group of people to Quebec and invited the best in the field to come there, and put together another workshop in India on cementious materials, with ten or twelve research scientists from the United States to meet with probably another 20 people there. It sparks collaboration and advances in your field. The outcome of all of this is really remarkable, we’ve put out state-of-the-art papers that will serve as cornerstones for further research for the next decade.

I tend to see research as a microcosm of having your own small business, because as faculty much of what we do revolves around securing funding for our work. If I don’t do it, nobody will, and the buck stops right here on my desk if I don’t keep my business running. It’s a sense of independence that goes along with it.

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