Peter Voorhees

50 years of innovation

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering celebrates its birthday

Peter Voorhees, Frank C. Engelhart Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and chair of the department, was charged with planning a special event this year — an obligation he found to be a labor of love.

“It was a privilege planning the 50th birthday celebration of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering,” he says. “We were the first such department, and we continue to define the field. It was a great opportunity to bring together such a group of distinguished scholars and celebrate the incredible advances in our field.”

The golden jubilee of the department included a two-day symposium held at McCormick on October 27 and 28, culminating in a banquet and keynote speech. The symposium featured sessions that reviewed the emergence, current frontiers, and future perspectives of materials science and engineering. Speakers included such alumni as Teruaki Aoki, Didier de Fontaine, Joshua Jacobs, Anne Mayes, and Lyle Schwartz. Faculty members involved in the symposium included Scott Barnett, Mark Hersam, Gregory Olson, David Seidman, Samuel Stupp, Julia Weertman, Bruce Wessels, and Morris Fine, the first chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. (See related articles on Fine and Hersam.)

The presentation by keynote speaker Stephen Sass of Cornell University was especially of interest, since it emphasized the importance of the McCormick School's recent collaboration between materials scientists and conservators from the Art Institute of Chicago. (See By Design, spring 2005.)

Northwestern's Materials Science and Engineering Department was the first such department in the world when it was established in 1955. Voorhees explains that 50 years ago the department's approach to research and teaching — one that stressed concepts that applied to all materials — was quite novel.

“Today the approach that we developed has become the standard for the field,” says Voorhees.

The department continues to expand the boundaries of materials. From materials that can be used to make quantum computation a reality; to fuel cells that promise cleaner, more efficient energy sources; to life-enhancing and life-saving biomaterials, materials science and engineering has the potential to address society's greatest concerns and to develop new generations of technologies.

“It is inspiring to reflect upon our faculty members' accomplishments and to envision what more we will be able to contribute to scholarship in the field in the decades to come,” says Voorhees.


Milestones In Materials Science


John Hilliard creates the first metallic superlattices. The impact of this work continues today due to the novel properties of these nanoscale structures.


Stephen Carr was among the first to show how natural polymers can be engineered, by combinations of physical and chemical modifications, into useful biodegradable plastics.

Johannes Weertman published one of the most influential early studies on the stability of the West Antartica ice sheet. His conclusion that the sheet is on the way to collapse has been the subject of great interest since.


The late Jerome Cohen (who would become dean of the McCormick School) developed a portable x-ray stress analyzer, used to determine how much stress a metal is supporting.

Morris Fine begins his work on NUCu steel — a project that spans almost

20 years and, in 2005, is used in a railroad bridge in Lake Villa, Illinois. See related article about Fine.


Yip-Wah Chung pursues work on nitrogenated carbon coatings. These are used as a protective overcoat for nearly all computer disk drives, including those in Apple iPods.

Scott Barnett and Bill Sproul work on ultrahard coatings based on nanoscale superlattices (below). These materials can be used for coatings on cutting tools and other materials to increase the hardness of the material's surface.


Greg Olson and Charles Kuehmann design the C61 “Ferrium” gear steel. It is now used in more than a third of all 1600-class race cars.


Samuel Stupp's nanoscale polymer ampiphiles are promising routes for regenerating human tissues from nerves to bones.

Mark Hersam designs prototypes of sensors and electronic and mechanical devices on the scale of a single molecule using the cryogenic variable temperature ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope that was custom designed and built in his laboratory. See related article about Hersam.

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