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Howard K. Birnbaum, materials expert at University of Illinois, dies at age 72

James E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
217 244-1073;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Howard K. Birnbaum, an expert in the science of materials who developed new concepts to prevent materials from failing, died Sunday (Jan. 23) at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Ill. A professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Birnbaum was 72 years old and had lived in Champaign.

Birnbaum was internationally recognized for his work on mechanical deformation and plastic flow in materials and how these processes are influenced by hydrogen. He is credited with establishing one of the fundamental mechanisms of hydrogen-induced degradation of materials.

“Howard’s contributions to science and engineering extend well beyond the 280 scientific papers he published,” said Ian Robertson, the head of the department of materials sciences and engineering at Illinois. “He was a mentor and teacher for his many graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty colleagues, and was an articulate spokesperson and advocate for the broad discipline of materials science and engineering.”

Birnbaum developed a fundamental understanding of the complex effects of dissolved hydrogen on the deformation and fracture of metals. He demonstrated that three different fracture mechanisms were responsible for the environmentally related fracture – known as hydrogen embrittlement – of many modern materials systems. His research spawned new approaches to allow design and utilization in order to avoid environmental failure.

“Howard’s work often produced new interpretations of phenomena, and he had to convince the scientific community to accept his new models,” Robertson said. “This he did with remarkable skill: He could disagree vehemently with opponents, but always with a sense of humor so that they remained his friends. He was a true scholar.”

Birnbaum received his bachelor’s degree in 1953, his master’s degree in metallurgy in 1955 from Columbia University and his doctorate, also in metallurgy, in 1958 from Illinois. He began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1958 and joined the Illinois faculty as a professor of metallurgical engineering in 1961. He served as the director of the Department of Energy’s Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory on the Illinois campus from 1987 until 1999.

Birnbaum received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Mehl Gold Medal from the American Institute of Metallurgical Engineering, and the von Hippel Award from the Materials Research Society. For the von Hippel Award, Birnbaum was cited for his “seminal contributions to our understanding of intrinsic point defects, hydrogen in metals, and grain boundary segregation, especially as these effects relate to mechanical properties. He has also stimulated, directed, and influenced interdisciplinary research throughout the materials community.”

He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the Materials Society and the American Society for Metals, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Birnbaum was born Oct. 18, 1932, in Brooklyn. He is survived by his wife, Freda Silber, whom he married in 1954. Also surviving are three children, Elisa, Scott and Shari; his sister Sybil Licht; and four grandchildren.