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New research center studies welding issues in energy industry

John DuPont (standing) and Andrew Stockdale, a graduate student in materials science and engineering, use a scanning electron microscope to analyze a nickel-based weld that is being considered for use in the boilers of coal-fired power plants.

From solar, wind and nuclear to clean coal, oil and natural gas, says John DuPont, the solutions to the world’s growing demand for energy are as numerous as they are diverse.

But they all share a common requirement—a sound understanding of the principles that underlie the joining of materials.

The steel towers in wind mill farms are welded, as are the pipelines carrying gas and oil. The boilers in coal-fired power plants require welding expertise, as do lithium-ion car batteries, offshore oil rigs and nuclear power plants.

DuPont, professor of materials science and engineering and associate director of Lehigh’s Energy Research Center, has played a major role in the creation of a new national research center devoted to the welding and joining of materials used in the energy industry.

The Center for Integrative Materials Joining Science for Energy Applications seeks to extend the service lifetime of welds in the existing energy infrastructure and to increase the efficiency of the advanced welding materials used in new infrastructure.

More than $5 million in funding from NSF, NASA and industry

The new center is a collaboration involving Lehigh and three other universities (Ohio State, the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  and the Colorado School of Mines), three national laboratories (Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Idaho), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and 16 industrial companies that make materials with energy applications.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) last month approved the center as an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC). The center will receive more than $5 million in funding over the next five years from the national labs, the partner companies and NSF, and it will have the opportunity to reapply for funding when the five years are completed.

The need for improved welding materials and technologies, says DuPont, is driven by the fact that new power plants, whether nuclear or fossil-fuel, are designed to operate at higher temperatures and under greater pressure. These two factors enable power plants to run more efficiently but they impose greater demands on welded joints.

“Every time we come up with new welding materials, we have to minimize the adverse effect that joining can have on the materials’ performance. A weld is like a weak link. Its performance influences the performance of the overall material.”

Ohio State is the lead university in the new research center. Lehigh and the two other schools are also research sites. The center’s members will work on different projects and share research results. Research topics will be chosen by industrial companies.

DuPont has spent 20 years investigating the welding and joining of materials and is particularly interested in the welding metallurgy of the nickel-based alloys that are used in power-generation applications. He supervises five graduate students and has published more than 230 technical articles, in addition to a recently completed textbook on the subject.

His previous awards include NSF’s CAREER Award and also its Presidential Award, which is the highest honor granted by the U.S. government to young scientists and engineers.


Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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