Pantano reflects on past, future of materials science

Carlo Pantano, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, has served as director of Penn State's Materials Research Institute since 1998. This month, Pantano will step down as director to return full-time to research and teaching. In a recent interview with Matt Swayne of Research Communications, he expressed his excitement about the future of materials science, and the cross-pollination happening at Penn State's Millennium Science Complex. 


How did you become interested in engineering and what made you want to be a materials scientist?
I first became interested in engineering as a teenager. Working on cars was one of my hobbies and I was also lucky enough to land summer jobs in the industry. Those early jobs didn't just give me experience, they also taught me a lot about problem solving. I would see places where there were problems and I would think, "That's something I could solve." I really enjoyed that challenge. In retrospect, I now know that an engineering education teaches one how to approach and solve problems, in general, whether you're an engineer or not.

What role are materials scientists playing in creating next-generation technology and treatments?
Materials scientists are developing new materials and altering current materials to reduce the weight or volume of an object, without sacrificing properties or performance. The new A1 alloy that is used on new Ford pickup trucks saves about 700 pounds! Materials research is leading to an increase in the operating temperature of turbines to improve performance and efficiency in both aircraft and in land-based power generation facilities. The single crystal turbine blade that is used in high performance jet engines, for example.

The list of potential innovations is staggering. Materials enable lower cost electronics, new drug delivery methods, organ repair and reconstruction, medical diagnostics, higher speed electronics, safety and longevity of vehicles and structures, longer-lasting batteries.

Are there any areas of research that you think we should watch in the future?
New energy storage materials and methods. Also, watch how 3D printing will change the cost and design of engineering structures. As I mentioned, new, lightweight materials will continue to be an exciting area of discovery in the field. And new electronic materials will just keep on giving!

What are some examples of cross-college collaborations going on at the Millennium Science Complex?
Our researchers are constantly collaborating and creating. We're creating functional materials for electronics and coatings that are one atomic layer thick. We're also exploring the use of nanomaterials for encapsulation and delivery of new drugs. To meet global energy needs, researchers are investigating flexible and printed electronics that can be used in products like displays and solar cells, as well as thin flexible glass for energy storage.  Researchers are also creating the next generation of personal body sensors to improve health.

Besides the raw discoveries that our researchers are making, we're actually taking these discoveries and finding places for them in the marketplace through faculty start-up companies.

What makes the MSC an interesting place to conduct research -- and to teach and learn?
We have a community of faculty with broad expertise; collaborative research, teaching and advising. The building features state-of the art core facilities with a support staff. And then the students -- they come alive outside the classroom and always want to describe or talk about their research. MRI itself provides an opportunity for researchers to vertically integrate our ideas and accomplishments. For example, I'm interested in the unique characteristics and properties of glasses. I work with glasses of all kinds -- glass substrates for electronics or energy storage, glass fibers for reinforcement, optical fiberglass for communications, glasses for nuclear waste disposal, coated glasses for architecture, bioglasses and more, including my hobby of glassblowing.

At the MSC, I can walk down the hall to ask a colleague whose expertise is thin film electronics about the kind of electronic materials and processes they use for displays, and how the display glasses I am working with might interact with their materials and processes. Or they can come to me about the kind of glass that can meet their needs for a biological substrate or new optical device. The most exciting thing is using our individual expertise to discover new devices or structures -- or products, or understanding -- by working together with a common vision.

Last Updated May 16, 2014