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On the third floor of Washburn here at WPI lies a little-known gem in the rough known as the Metals Processing Institute. Managed by Professor Diran Apelian, the MPI runs much of WPI’s work with metals, including research on the newly developing use of aluminum as a lightweight, versatile alloy component.
Established in 1996, the MPI developed a platform by which the university could hold a stronger connection to the industry they were working for. Thinking back to WPI’s motto “lehr und kunst,” this fits in perfectly with the mission of the school and once again sets WPI above other universities who shy away from the “kunst” part of an engineering degree.
Reflecting on the history of WPI, Professor Apelian says the MPI just naturally meshes into the university: “When WPI started, its motto fit well into the manufacturing of the Worcester location. The MPI was created to connect research to industry in a way that would surpass traditional projects by helping students work in an atmosphere with lots of invention, innovation and education going on.”
As a result, the MPI collaborates with over 80 corporate partners who provide funding for the organization in a precompetitive fashion, meaning that the research is done in a collaborative way so that the solution can be used by everyone in the group. This allows more money to be infused into the system and spent in a highly productive manner that generates the best solution possible.
Research for the projects is conducted by graduate and doctoral students working toward a thesis in materials science or metallurgical engineering. They complete class work here at WPI and then travel to the industrial site to complete research in any of the three main factions of the MPI: advanced metal casting, heat treating excellence and resource recovery and recycling (R cubed).
The Advanced Casting Research Center, or ACRC, works in the $29 billion per year casting industry to make key developments towards a more efficient production and usage of metals. For example, they seek an efficient way to replace titanium and ferrous metals with the cheaper, more readily available aluminum. They’ve also conducted research to develop new alloys that can be used at higher temperatures, as well as nanocomposites. Practical applications of their work can be used for transportation and housing, among other things.
The Center for Heat Treating Excellence, or CHTE, works to compile a database on the thermodynamic properties of various metal substances for use by researchers and industrial suitors. Research is conducted under the leadership of Dean Richard Sisson Jr., CHTE principle investigator, and Mechanical Engineering Professor Yiming Rong, director of the Computer-aided Manufacturing laboratory here at WPI. They currently conduct research to improve various properties and to develop enabling tools to better control processes. For example, CHTE has just completed a project to optimize the lifecycle of aluminum alloys.
Last but not least, the newest section of MPI is the Center for Resource, Recovery and Recycling, or CR3. Professor Apelian stresses that CR3 is now more important than ever to modern industry: “Things aren’t built to be taken apart, so they’re difficult to recycle. (Holding up his iPhone) Do you know how many elements are in this? Long ago manufacturing used about seven elements to make everything! Now, we use a much more extensive variety, and a lot of the Lanthanide series. How is it possible to recycle the 59 elements in an iPhone if they’re not manufactured for disassembly?” This exactly spells out the goal of CR3: building with intent to recover and recycle critical materials. Furthermore, CR3 is an NSF Industry University Cooperative Research Center and has two affiliated universities: Colorado School of Mines, and Katholieke University in Leuven, Belgium.
All in all, the MPI here at WPI is driven by one thing. In the words of Apelian, “We’re trying to model manufacturing after Nature.” Think about it; the vast majority of nature uses very few elements and it has no waste. Trees are made of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. They fall; they’re “recycled.” If manufacturing were that easy, imagine the world we would live in.