3° with Dan Lewis

by Michael Mullaney on April 27, 2011

Professor Dan Lewis, in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, recently won an NSF CAREER Award for his research into the structure and performance of metals and ceramics. He also leads the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research Lab at Rensselaer.

We asked Dan about his work:

Q: So, what’s a fuel cell?

A: A fuel cell is an energy conversion device the produces electrical power and heat for use in many different applications. Unlike batteries, as long as fuel is supplied, the fuel cell will continue to operate.

When will fuel cells and hydrogen fuel start to be integrated into commercialized products?

They already are in some products! For example, some truck manufacturers are using fuel cells for auxiliary power needs rather than using the diesel engine. This is done for increased fuel efficiency. Other manufacturers are producing fuel cell systems to produce electricity and hot water for homes. The most notable company is Bloom Energy. They are building a business in supplying power for industrial customers like Google.

You run Materials Day Camp at RPI, a week-long summer camp for inquisitive high school juniors and seniors. Tell me about it.

The Capital District Materials Camp (CDMC) has been running for five years and has served 116 high-school and home schooled students. The CDMC is a 5-day camp designed to teach rising high-school juniors and seniors (students selected to achieve 50 percent male and 50 percent female attendance) about engineering and the basic principles of Materials Science. The CDMC program is divided into morning hands-on demonstrations and afternoon group projects. The former are used to introduce the students to a variety of materials and their applications and the latter to allow students to gain more in-depth knowledge and exercise general scientific techniques. For example, morning demonstrations one year may be on superhydrophobicity and wetting, sand casting, bulk-metallic glasses, nanomaterials, and bio-materials. The longer, afternoon project was designing the microstructure of and testing the properties of a model concrete canoe.

Tell me about the City of Materials Project, too.

Some really great folks at ASM have conceived of (and constructed!) a virtual city that middle school students can explore to learn more about materials science: http://www.cityofmaterials.net. The project is funded by the ASM Materials Education Foundation. The ASM Educational foundation’s mission is to excite young people in the area of materials science and engineering. I’m lucky enough to have a bit of funding to help develop content for the site. We are trying to make people (in particular, middle school students) more aware of fuel cell technology and fuel cell applications. These aren’t just static web-pages. These are virtual locations that you can explore freely. You need to try it out!

What drives your passion to pursue these kinds of projects?

The microstructure of materials (you can only see it through a microscope) is where all the action happens. High-school and middle school students never hear about it. I’m going to change that – not because I want to make them all materials engineers, but because there is another world surrounding us (in materials structure) that is shaping engineering today. Everyone needs to be aware of these things. It is something so fundamental to all engineering disciplines that students need to hear about it and see it through the microscope for themselves.

At Rensselaer, what’s your favorite course to teach?

Introduction to Materials Science for Engineers. Each semester I teach the course I get to share my passion for my discipline with 60 students, many of whom don’t know what materials science entails or what a materials engineer does.

Outside of the laboratory and classroom, what do you do for fun?

I train for triathlons, I play my guitar, I play board games (like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico) and I spend time with my awesome wife (also a materials engineer!) and son.

Read more about Dan Lewis’ research here. And be sure to check out our other 3° Interviews on The Approach.