Semyon Vaynman and Morris Fine

500 tons of (Northwestern University) steel find a home

Emeritus Professor Morris Fine was inspecting a bridge under construction in Lake Villa, Illinois: “his” bridge, built with his new steel — NUCu (Northwestern University copper) steel. “I've been waiting for this day since Research Associate Professor Semyon Vaynman, Shrikant Bhat of Inland Steel, and I finished developing this steel eight years ago,” says Fine. “This steel is cost effective because its processing is cheaper than competing structural steels of the same strength, its weathering resistance is best, and it's easier to weld.”

In 1965 Fine — who joined Northwestern's Technological Institute (the predecessor of today's McCormick School) in 1954 — began a fundamental study of steels containing copper with his students. This basic knowledge was then used to develop improved steels. His angle of attack: alloys strengthened with nanoscale precipitates. High-strength steels such as these do not require carbon for their strength and are much easier to weld than quenched and tempered high-strength steels. Copper also gives weathering resistance to steels, and the tiny copper precipitates make the fracture resistance better.

But there was a problem beyond simply the formulation of this superior new steel. The American steel industry is infected with the “not invented here” syndrome, and bridge designers are reluctant to make changes. Thus, both designers and manufacturers are reluctant to embrace new products. So Fine and Vaynman became salesmen, too. Beyond tinkering with the steel formula and testing it in their lab, they joined federal committees, succeeded in getting standards-setting bodies to accept NUCu, pestered steelmakers to make sample “heats” of it, proselytized to bridge owners and designers on its advantages, and finally found a receptive audience in the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).

As a first step, IDOT specified NUCu steel to be made into beams for a seismic retrofit and rehabilitation of a bridge in southern Illinois over the New Madrid Fault. Forty-five tons of NUCu were installed side by side with a competing high performance steel, and the results were carefully monitored. NUCu was a winner, which led IDOT to convince the Federal Highway Administration to use NUCu steel for an entire bridge as a demonstration project.

The Lake Villa bridge was chosen. Five hundred tons of steel plates were cast, rolled, and welded into girders. This high-traffic structure over the Metra and Canadian National Railway lines in Lake County would provide a good demonstration of the new steel. “Not only is this steel strong, tough, and easy to fabricate, but the fact that you don't have to paint it eases construction and significantly reduces long-term maintenance costs,” says Chris Hahin, IDOT materials engineer, who has worked with the Northwestern researchers for over a decade.

Since the early 1990s Fine and Vaynman have partnered with Northwestern's Infrastructure Technology Institute (ITI), a federally supported transportation center of excellence now housed in the new Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. ITI's mandate includes developing innovative infrastructure technologies and helping researchers transfer them into practice. “ITI has successfully demonstrated innovative technologies at over 60 locations in 19 states and the District of Columbia,” said Dave Schulz, ITI's director and adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering. “But Professor Fine's NUCu steel project may be our most satisfying — especially watching him oversee the installation of 500 tons of his NUCu steel on this bridge, after so many years of hard work.”

Fine, 87, was the first chair of McCormick's Department of Materials Science and Engineering and served as associate dean for research and graduate studies. He retired from Northwestern in 1988 but has remained active in research, working with graduate students and serving as a senior counselor to many faculty at McCormick.

When asked about the length of the project's development from inception, Fine says simply, “It is always rewarding to see something useful come from one's research.”

Northwestern University