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How Western Pennsylvania Became a World Center of Material Science

If you have ever wondered how that stack of CDs in the file cabinet keeps all the zeroes and ones that make up your computer files minty-fresh and ready for copying in the event of a digital mishap, you can thank the materials scientists at Bayer MaterialScience. The polycarbonate that the company makes is found in the vast majority of CDs and DVDs sold throughout the world.

Although computers and computing would appear at first glance to be far removed from western Pennsylvania’s industrial heritage of glass, metals and fossil fuels; as a matter of fact, the technologically-advanced world in which we live today is largely enabled by the materials for which Pittsburgh has been famous for more than 200 years. During that time, as the region and its industries flourished, the close investigation of materials by successive cadres of craftsmen, mechanics, engineers, technicians, scientists and inventors established Pittsburgh as a global center of materials science.

In an unusual example of a natural material serving different commercial needs at different times in history, at the turn of the 19th century, Pittsburgh found itself in the awkward position of having a surfeit of geological and mineralogical riches, but no readily available supply of salt to sustain life. The result was the establishment of a brine drilling and salt evaporating industry along the banks of the Three Rivers, which led to the inadvertent discovery of what were then nuisance materials - Pennsylvania crude oil and natural gas. Once affordable transport across the Alleghenies was established, western Pennsylvania’s salt industry evaporated. However, a century and a half later, the brine wells induced Bayer to locate here. Greg Babe, CEO of Bayer MaterialScience, explained the company’s motivation for coming to Pittsburgh in the 1950s, “We came to Pittsburgh because we invented polyurethane chemistry and polycarbonate, which is best known as CDs and DVDs. All of the products we make utilize chlorine chemistry, which requires brine. And there was plenty of brine just south of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. At Bayer's Natrium plant we use brine to make caustic (sodium hydroxide) and chlorine, both of which are used in our manufacturing processes. That's how Pittsburgh became the head of Bayer in the United States.”

Elementary Materials

To be clear, materials science is the study of all the stuff we use to build all the things we make: houses, cars, roads, bridges, soap, dentures, hip joints, heart patches, cell phones, socks, bricks, mirrors, toys, CDs, hard disks, everything. But to qualify an oversimplified definition, it's not the whole product or device; it's the stuff that goes into making its components: In one way or another, your hard drive is the result of materials that were developed, discovered, invented, produced or improved here in western Pennsylvania.

For example, in 1997 Carnegie Mellon University professors David Laughlin, David Lambeth, and Dr. L. Lee developed a method for layering materials on hard drives that was used in virtually every laptop sold until 2003.

At an elementary level, materials are classified as metals, ceramics or polymers. Things get a lot more complicated than that, but in the interests of finding a point of departure for an extremely complicated subject: The hard disk described above contains all three types of materials. First: The material that allows the disk to spin at thousands of revolutions per minute without deforming (and losing your zeroes and ones) is a glass (ceramic) substrate. Ceramic materials are more rigid than metals because their atomic structure gives them a lot of strength, but almost no flexibility. Atoms in ceramic materials have no precise order. Brick, glass and porcelain are ceramic materials. Second: With most hard drives a series of metallic layers is deposited on the ceramic substrate. Metal atoms assemble themselves into precise geometric crystal lattice structures that give them the ability to be formed when solid and to conduct heat and electricity. The multiple metal layers serve a variety of purposes, such as making one layer stick to another, smoothing out the surfaces between layers and coaxing recalcitrant magnetic crystals to orient themselves for maximum data storage efficiency. Third, to protect the complicated chemistry, physics and hard work it took to get all those atoms in just the right place, a polymer coating is applied. Polymer atoms form chains of molecules that can be millions of units long. Depending on their molecular makeup, polymers can exhibit an extraordinarily wide range of performance characteristics. Oil, plastics, bubble gum, and CDs are polymers.

Carnegie Mellon’s Professor Laughlin looks at materials in light of four interrelated elements: processing, properties, microstructure and performance. “We make the material, then we measure its magnetic properties, then we do x-rays to get its crystal structure, then we get a transmission electron micrograph to see its microstructure, then we integrate the whole package,” he said. “If a material doesn’t perform well, we can correlate its properties to its microstructure and tune the manufacturing process to get a microstructure that is likely to give us better performance. We go from processing to microstructure to crystal structure to properties.”

A Brief History of Materials

While Laughlin’s “materials science paradigm,” as he calls it, seems obviously logical today, it took a long time and a lot of hard work to arrive at it. Historically speaking, coal, this region’s most abundant and valuable natural material, has been mined since before Pittsburgh’s official founding in 1758. Beginning in the early years of the 19th century, coal, along with Allegheny River sand, and Juniata iron brought in by Conestoga wagon, enabled the establishment of Pittsburgh’s fledgling glass, ceramics and iron industries.

In 1832, Robert McKenna, coppersmith and patriarch of the McKenna family of metals men, immigrated to Pittsburgh from Ireland. McKenna’s descendants would go on to make important advancements in the field of tungsten (a refractory or hard metal) alloys for cutting tools and to found Latrobe’s Kennametal more than a century later. In 1859, oil (a polymer), was discovered in Titusville. Then, in 1875, Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thompson Works produced its first heat of Bessemer steel, setting the stage for the greatest industrial boom in history. In 1883 Pittsburgh’s robust glass industry took a large step forward in the inchoate field of materials science with the establishment of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG), which would grow to become one of the world’s most innovative materials companies and one of Pittsburgh’s anchor industries. In 1886 in Oberlin, Ohio, Charles Martin Hall solved the stubborn problem of extracting aluminum from ore. Unable to find financial backing for his invention in his hometown, Hall came to Pittsburgh where he found the money he needed to establish The Reduction Company of Pittsburgh. That company went on to become the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), which evolved into a major force in materials science and became another of Pittsburgh’s anchor companies. Following a series of catastrophic mine explosions in 1907, the Pittsburgh Experiment Station of the United States Bureau of Mines was established at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville. In 1917, the Bureau of Mines moved to Oakland and the explosives station moved to Bruceton in the South Hills. For the past century, the Bureau of Mines and its organizational successor, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), has led the nation and the world in research in the fields of extractive metallurgy, explosives, mine safety, and fossil fuel science; all disciplinary subsets of materials science.

From Metallurgy to Materials Science

Then during the 1930s, metallurgy underwent a paradigm shift when leaders in the field began to apply the scientific method and electron microscopy to the discipline. During that time, Edgar Bain of United States Steel used x-ray emission spectroscopy to discover a new hard “phase” of steel, eponymously named Bainite. At about the same time, the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) enlisted Professor Robert Franklin Mehl as the founder of a new Metals Research Laboratory. Dr. Gregory Rohrer, head of Carnegie Mellon’s Materials Science Department, describes Mehl as, “The first person to say, ‘We are going to use the scientific method and apply quantitative techniques to metals.’ He did the kinds of things chemists or physicists would do naturally, but which hadn't been applied to metallurgy. He recruited some top people from around the world and very quickly turned CIT (Carnegie Mellon) into one of the premier places to do metallurgical research throughout the world.”

Some two decades later at Penn State, a young research chemist named Rustum Roy pioneered a method for synthesizing high-purity, ultrafine ceramic materials by dissolving starting materials in a solution that became a gel, forming them to shape, and processing them with less energy than earlier methods, which had required grinding and melting at high temperatures. The technique is now known as the sol gel process and is one of the most widely employed methods of ceramics synthesis in the world. Roy went on to become head of the first interdisciplinary materials lab, Penn State’s Materials Research Laboratory (MRL). Recognizing that other universities were far ahead of Penn State in the fields of metals and polymers, Roy chose his objectives carefully. “In 1962 in the field of metals, MIT and Carnegie Mellon were way ahead of us,” he said in an interview. “We could not catch them. We couldn't catch others in polymers either, but there was an opportunity to become number one in ceramics and we did.” Author of more than 800 scientific papers, Roy was the architect of the Materials Research Society (MRS), headquartered in his lab for its first 10 years and whose membership consists of 15,000 materials science professionals from around the world. Today, MRS is headquartered in Warrendale, Pa.

MRS Executive Director, Dr. John Ballance, puts wide boundaries on the field of materials science. “I would argue that materials science comes out of alchemy during the Middle Ages, which is also the origin of chemistry and extractive metallurgy,” he said. Ballance traced the origins and evolution of the discipline’s modern organizational roots as beginning in 1871 with the founding of the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) which, over a period of 100 years expanded and evolved into four professional societies: The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS), The Association for Iron and Steel Technology (AIST), The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) and the Society of Mining Engineers (SME). As things turned out, both TMS and AIST are located in Warrendale along with the Materials Research Society (MRS) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

Materials Across the Sciences

“The establishment of these societies marked the emergence of materials science out of metallurgy in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Ballance explained. “But parallel to all of this, the science of materials began spreading in such a way that today it is no longer just metals anymore. Very large parts of the work are done in chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. So the discipline of materials is far broader than it ever was before and its range is very complex. We believe that the future will be about the intersection of the physical sciences with the life sciences, medicine, and biology.”

Dr. Carlo Pantano, Penn State’s Director of the Materials Research Institute (MRI) agrees. “The MRI is a vehicle by which we can connect disparate disciplines and bring all that power to bear on designing new materials,” he said. “Penn State University has a long history of the traditional disciplines like mineralogy, extractive metallurgy, ceramics, plastics, carbon, and fuels. Erwin Mueller, the first man to see atoms, did it here with the field ion microscope he invented. The development of the atomic force microscope (AFM) and the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in the 1970s made sensing atoms accessible. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we felt that Penn State had more to give in materials than you would get by just looking at the discipline, so we established the Materials Research Institute in 1998. Now that the ability to synthesize materials that are more like living materials has increased dramatically, we want materials science and the life sciences to work together. And we're going to reward collaborators for making that happen.”

In an effort to achieve the MRI’s interdisciplinary objectives, Pantano and his colleagues are in the process of planning a new $190 million headquarters that will be attached to Penn State’s Huck Institutes for the Life Sciences. Groundbreaking is scheduled for June 2008.

The Business of Materials Science

Although materials science holds tremendous promise for the future, it remains an important part of business today.

Kennametal CEO, Carlos Cardoso, puts materials science at the top of his list of resources for maintaining market leadership and profitability. “We are in a unique position because we understand hard metals,” Cardoso said. “We also make high-performance ceramics which have very good strength combined with very good thermal properties. Ceramics grew out of tungsten carbide, not only from the materials science perspective but also from that of customer need. We have over a thousand scientists and engineers in this company who work every day in the field of materials science.”

The company, which receives an average of 40 patents per year, has recently incorporated nanotechnology into its new product development program. “One of our business strategies is to have 40 percent of our sales come from new products every year, and for us, that means new materials,” Cardoso said.

Another believer in the value of nanotechnology is Plextronics’ CEO Andrew Hannah who has hitched his company’s star to the field of tiny things. Plextronics makes one of the products that contradict the simple rules of materials science – conductive polymers. Based on a chemical system called regioregular polythiophenes, in which polymer molecules line up from head to tail – not quite as neatly as metallic crystals – and not quite as chaotically as ceramic materials – but with much more order than most polymers, Plextronics’ printable polymer inks are able to conduct electricity as well as both absorb and emit light.

“Nanotechnology is a leading category of materials science,” Hannah said. “It wasn’t until recently that we have had the tools - the types of microscopes and knowledge - that enable us to engineer at the molecular level. Those tools allow us to put molecules where we want them, when we want them there. “The reason that we decided to grow the company here is that when you look at ways to apply our technology on different substrates, Pittsburgh had a ton of materials technology in aluminum, steel, plastics and glass, so it was a perfect place for us because we can literally put our technology on their technology and take new products to market.”

A new organization recently established in Pittsburgh to further the field of nanomaterials is the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center. The Center leverages innovative research and ideas from the region’s universities and start-up companies, like Plextronics, to accelerate the commercialization process for new products and processes.

The Center was founded by the region’s leading materials companies; Bayer MaterialScience, Alcoa, PPG and US Steel, and is funded by Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, the Heinz Foundation, and the Air Force Research Labs in Dayton, Ohio.

The Center strives to create new partnerships between university researchers, small and large companies, and then invites innovative proposals for nanomaterials commercialization projects. Through a rigorous peer review process, the best proposals are approved by the center’s board for funding. To date, the center has invested $ 1.25 million, with a company match of $ 750K, in small companies and partnerships for a wide range of projects using nanomaterials. These projects are producing lower cost solar cells, more effective heat dissipation devices for computers, more energy efficient lighting, and lower cost fuel cells.

The Next Paradigm of Materials Science

At the far reaches of materials science and engineering, Dr. Todd Osman, Technical Director of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, is working with members on a new materials development program called Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME). As he describes it, the method “employs mathematical and computational methods to develop models for the integration of materials characteristics and performance across time and length scales.” Although the new approach holds great promise for the field, it is still in its infancy. “In each era of materials science, we have gotten better at predicting materials characteristics based on physical and chemical properties,” Osman said. “But we have a long way to go.”

But with such notable enterprises as: The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, The Materials Research Society, the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the American Institute of Steel Technology, all in Warrendale; Alcoa’s Technical Center in New Kensington, U.S. Steel’s Research Center in Munhall, Bayer MaterialScience in Collier, PPG’s Technical Center in Allison Park, Kennametal’s Technical Center in Latrobe, Seagate’s Technical Center in Pittsburgh, the Bettis Atomic Laboratory in West Mifflin, Penn State’s Materials Research Laboratory, Materials Research Institute and the NSF-funded Materials Research and Engineering Center in State College, the Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon’s NSF-funded Materials Science and Research Center in Oakland, the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Departments of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering and Materials Science, Pittsburgh should have sufficient materials science resources to keep all our zeroes and ones copacetic while they’re helping the region’s materials scientists to develop new materials for a long time to come.

This article first appeared as a TEQ cover story.

© Copyright 2008, Thomas P. Imerito / dba Science Communications

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©2009 Science Communications