Engineering Departments

Virginia Tech forms Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute; names director from Eastman

Blacksburg, VA , August 26, 2004

For more than three decades, Virginia Tech scientists and engineers have excelled in polymer science and engineering. Today, the collaboration is culminating in the formation of the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute (MII).

Richard Turner, a research fellow with Eastman Chemical Company's Polymer Technology Division, will be joining Virginia Tech as director of MII in January, 2005. Until then, Jack Lesko of engineering science and mechanics (ESM) and Tim Long of chemistry will serve as the interim co-directors.

Turner who holds 85 patents is a graduate of Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, Tenn., where he received both his bachelor of science and master of science degrees. He earned his Ph.D. in organic polymer chemistry from the University of Florida, Gainesville, in 1971, followed by postdoctoral work in polymer chemistry in Darmstadt, Germany. He worked in the research laboratories of Xerox Corporation and Exxon Mobil Corporation before joining the research laboratories of Eastman Kodak Company in 1982. He joined Eastman Chemical Company in 1993.

MII represents the convergence of three centers, an institute and a graduate degree program. MII consists of about 20 faculty members who are heavily involved in polymer, adhesion, and composite research, along with over 30 additional faculty members, involved in peripheral ways.

Dave Dillard, professor of ESM and the outgoing director of the Center for Adhesive and Sealant Science (CASS), working with interested faculty members and administrators, spearheaded the efforts to merge the related areas under one University organization. "I wanted to take away the boundaries. Most of the faculty belonged to all five entities, and it was confusing where one organization stopped and another started," Dillard said.

"MII will serve as a research engine. Building on our strengths and common interests, this organization will develop a program that can maintain and improve our national ranking from our current fifth place position in the last polymer materials survey done by U.S. News and World Report, positioning us for new funding opportunities in growth areas relevant to our expertise," Dillard said.

The three centers converging into the MII are: the Polymer Materials and Interfaces Laboratory (PMIL) created in 1978 by Garth Wilkes of chemical engineering and James McGrath of chemistry; CASS started in 1982 by Hal Brinson, who was an ESM faculty member; and the Center for Composite Materials and Structures (CCMS), founded in 1982 by Ken Reifsnider, emeritus ESM faculty member and National Academy of Engineering (NAE) member. The institute is the Materials Research Institute, also initiated by McGrath with Research Division sponsorship in 1987.

Macromolecular Science and Engineering, an interdisciplinary graduate degree program approved by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia in 2001 and directed by Judy Riffle of the chemistry department (although formally reporting to the graduate school dean), will also contribute to the MII effort. This program has grown from zero to 37 Ph.D. students and three M.S. students for fall 2004.

Research in the areas of macromolecules, interfaces, adhesion, and composites currently accounts for approximately $8.5 million in annual research expenditures at Virginia Tech. The combined program is expected to attract greater attention from potential government and industrial sponsors as well as prospective students and faculty members, paving the way for significant growth in research activities. The MII will continue to build on a strong focus on education and outreach.

"MII will provide us with the opportunity to rebuild our faculty through hiring junior and senior level professors," Dillard said. Several key personnel in this research area, including Reifsnider, James Wightman, and Wilkes, have retired recently, and MII is looking to the University to fill these positions through appropriate cluster hires or other mechanisms.

"MII is well-positioned to be a leader in contemporary advanced materials growth themes of importance to the Commonwealth," McGrath, a member of the NAE since 1994 and a University Distinguished Professor, said. These include: advanced materials for fuel cell energy systems; high performance adhesives and composites; novel biomaterials; and unique nanostructured materials and novel thin films.

Part of MII's objective is to enhance economic opportunities within the region and the state, through spin-off ventures, interactions with the Advanced and Applied Polymer Processing Institute in Danville, and other initiatives. Current research includes contracts with companies such as 3M, Avery Dennison, Battelle, Boeing, Daimler-Chrysler, Dow, DuPont. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Luna, and NanoSonic.

Past major government contracts include: two National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program (IGERT) grants directed by Riffle, Lesko, Long and Susan Duncan of the food science and technology department; a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant directed by Long; an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) directed by Tom Ward of chemistry; a Defense Army Research Projects Agency (DARPA) / Army Research Office (ARO) project; and an NSF Partnership for Innovation grant, co-directed by University Provost Mark McNamee and McGrath. McGrath also directed the first NSF Science and Technology Center at Virginia Tech from 1989 until 2000. It focused on high performance polymeric adhesives and composite materials, and resulted in 120 graduate degrees in science and engineering.

MII faculty will include members of the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Business, Engineering, Natural Resources, Science, and Veterinary Medicine.