Materials engineers play an important role in solving some of the nation’s most pressing energy challenges. These scientists develop ways to produce materials more efficiently, study the properties and structure of metal alloys, polymers, composites, and other materials, and identify how these materials can improve technologies used in nearly every industry—including aerospace, consumer electronics, and clean energy.
David Forrest is one of many engineers at the Energy Department who are bringing innovative materials processes to commercial scale and helping manufacturers develop clean energy technologies that save energy, increase American competitiveness, and cut carbon pollution. David was recently selected as a fellow by ASM International (formerly known as American Society for Metals), for outstanding technical leadership in emerging materials technologies such as nanomaterials and molecular manufacturing, with demonstrated technical expertise in material processing, computational modeling, and nondestructive testing. ASM is one of the world’s leading professional organizations for materials scientists and engineers and has a strong focus on energy and the environment.
Question 1: Why are materials processes so important?
David Forrest: Materials engineering is a dynamic field. When new process technologies emerge, they can revolutionize the way we make things. For instance, the Basic Oxygen Furnace (BOF) was invented in 1948 by Voest Ag in Austria, and it completely transformed steelmaking by reducing processing time and energy use. Within 20 years of the invention, virtually all the open-hearth furnaces in the United States, the dominant way to make steel up to that point, were mothballed. One BOF could replace six open-hearth furnaces. While it took an open-hearth furnace eight hours to make a 100-ton batch of steel, the BOF could make a 250-ton batch in 40 minutes. But the BOF’s supreme reign did not last. Since 1970, we have seen the rise of the Minimill, which uses smaller and cheaper electric arc furnaces to make steel by melting scrap metal. In 1970, virtually all steel was made using BOFs. Now, almost two-thirds of all the steel made in the U.S. is produced in electric arc furnaces instead.
A similar breakthrough happened with electronics. In 1916, a Polish metallurgist named Jan Czochralski accidently dipped a pen in molten metal instead of an inkwell. He observed a tiny thread of metal that had frozen at the tip, which led to his invention to grow large metal crystals. Decades later, the Czochralski process fueled the microelectronics revolution, when it was used to grow silicon crystals for semiconductors.
Q2: What is your technical expertise and what do you like most about working in materials science?
DF: I was a physical metallurgist, originally, which involved improving the properties of metals, like strength and toughness, by changing the chemical composition and heat treatment to transform their structures—and as a result I became adept at statistical methods. But I branched out into process metallurgy and focused on technologies for making metals, including melting, refining, casting, rolling, and heat treating. This required learning computational methods in thermodynamics, mechanics, heat transfer, electromagnetics and fluid flow. For example, I learned to predict how a heated metal alloy deforms when you squeeze it in a die press, or how molten metal flows in a casting machine when you apply electromagnetic fields. Then I spent time working on welding, and wrote some computer code to model that process, before turning to the study of some novel nanomaterials called “covetics.” While the computational stuff gives you some very cool graphics and animations, doing experiments in the lab and out on the shop floor is deeply satisfying. I think this variety of experience has given me somewhat of a knack for identifying and nurturing breakthrough technologies—which I’m enjoying putting into practice as a Technology Manager in the Advanced Manufacturing Office.
Q3: How has ASM, as an organization, helped you in your work as a materials engineer?
DF: ASM began 101 years ago as a gathering of heat treaters who met to share information about their craft. Today, ASM is an expert community devoted to building and maintaining a culture of technical exchange and collaboration, supporting manufacturing by sharing information about materials science and engineering, and fostering valuable relationships between experts. My membership work in ASM has helped my own professional development. And ASM reference books and proceedings have provided timely new information I use in my work at DOE and constantly share with other DOE colleagues.
Q4: How are ASM fellows chosen and when did the award get started?
DF: This honor is based on a combination of professional, technical, and scientific achievements; sustained professional growth; development of people; and professional recognition. ASM established the honor of fellow award in 1969 to provide recognition to members for their contributions to materials science and engineering.
Q5: What kind of materials science innovations do you anticipate in the future that will have a positive impact on the manufacturing industry and everyday life?
DF: More breakthroughs are on the horizon that have the potential to significantly change our lives for the better. We are only beginning to learn how to manipulate the atomic structure of materials as precisely as we manipulate bits of data in computers. The potential exists to approach the theoretical strengths of materials—which are often more than 10 times what we can make today. Imagine a car that weighs 200 lbs. instead of 2000. Completely new materials will literally transform the world around us: by integrating nanoscale motors into structures, it will be possible to make products that have programmable shapes. And if you have a manufacturing technology that precisely controls the atoms in the products that you make, you can also control the atoms in the waste stream for clean, efficient manufacturing with low environmental impact.