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Emeritus professor wins top honor from Materials Research Society

Jim Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Howard K. Birnbaum, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been selected as the 2002 recipient of the Von Hippel Award from the Materials Research Society. The award will be presented Dec. 4 at the MRS meeting in Boston.

Birnbaum is being recognized for the development of a fundamental understanding of the complex effects of dissolved hydrogen on the deformation and fracture of metals. The enormous economic consequences of environmentally related fracture – known as "hydrogen embrittlement" – have been recognized since the 1870s. Birnbaum demonstrated that three different fracture mechanisms were responsible for the environmentally related fracture of many modern materials systems. His research, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, spawned new approaches to alloy design and utilization in order to avoid environmental failure.

"Through innovative use of a wide range of novel experimental tools, Howard K. Birnbaum has made seminal contributions to our understanding of intrinsic point defects, hydrogen in metals, and grain boundary segregation, especially as these effects relate to mechanical properties," the award citation reads. "He has also stimulated, directed, and influenced interdisciplinary research throughout the materials community."

Birnbaum earned his master’s degree in metallurgy in 1955 from Columbia University and his doctorate, also in metallurgy, in 1958 from the University of Illinois. He joined the Illinois faculty as a professor of materials science and engineering in 1961.

Birnbaum served as the director of the Department of Energy’s Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory on the Illinois campus from 1987 until 1999. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the Metallurgical Society and the American Society of Metals, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The highest award of the society, the Von Hippel Award recognizes "brilliance and originality of intellect, combined with vision extending beyond the boundaries of conventional scientific disciplines." The award consists of $10,000 and a ruby laser crystal symbolizing the many-faceted nature of materials research.

Founded in 1973, the MRS has more than 12,000 members from the United States and more than 50 other countries.