Axel van de Walle is like a modern-day alchemist. Where old-school scientists, searching for a particular compound, mixed elements and noted the results, van de Walle uses computers and quantum mechanics to predict the end products of interactions.
“The idea is that it takes a lot of manpower and man-hours to do something experimentally,” said the incoming associate professor of engineering. “If you want to try thousands of combinations, you can, but you’ll need lots of research assistants, and it will take a lot of time. But if you can program a computer to do it, suddenly it becomes a lot more feasible (in terms of time and money). You don’t have to pay benefits to a computer.”
Of course, it’s nowhere near that easy. Van de Walle is quick to point out that he and others in the field are building on years of experimental work in phase diagrams, the road map in materials science that involves the mixing of elements. What he brings to the table is applying knowledge of the geometric structure of atoms and the dynamics of those interactions to narrow the focus in the hunt for new, exciting materials.
One of van de Walle’s interests is in refractory materials, which resist high temperatures without melting. Discovering materials that can withstand hotter temperatures has obvious potential applications, from turbine engines to rockets — or any fuel-burning device for that matter.
It’s that societal benefit derived from fundamental research that rings true for van de Walle and led him to materials engineering. “It makes you feel better,” he said. “You don’t want to be in your own bubble.”
The 39-year-old van de Walle grew up in Quebec City. His father was a mining geologist contracted to government and industry, and his mother was a librarian. He described his parents as “scientifically curious,” and said he had always been interested in science. As a child, he was fascinated by physics. “But then I realized, maybe I also like things with concrete applications,” he said. “And then I noticed that materials (science) tends to be a pretty general topic. It seemed like there were open questions that were difficult and useful.”
One such question, he noted, revolves around energy. The efficient harnessing or production of energy is not limited so much by ideas, but by the right materials. “If you think about batteries and fuel cells,” van de Walle said, “the limits lie in the materials. People know how to make a battery or a fuel cell. But to make them work even better, you need improvements in the materials.”
Van de Walle earned his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He comes to Brown from the California Institute of Technology, where he was an assistant professor in the Engineering and Applied Science Division. He also comes with substantial grant support. The day he started at Brown, he got official confirmation of the most recent funding, van de Walle happily relayed, thanks to the grant officers at the University who helped write the application before he had stepped on campus.
This fall, he will teach a class on thermodynamics. Beyond teaching and research, van de Walle expects to have little free time, with his second child born less than a month ago.
By Richard Lewis