At international conference, the UD mechanical engineering professor gave key lecture

In the field of composite materials, Tsu-Wei Chou is an icon.

Chou, the Pierre S. du Pont Chair of Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, gave a plenary lecture in August at the 21st International Conference on Composite Materials (ICCM-21) in Xi’an, China. A plenary lecture gives the speaker the spotlight, as no other events are scheduled during the time slot. More than 2,000 people from 45 countries attended the conference.

Chou’s talk at the biennial conference, the world’s largest conference on composites, recounted his personal journey in the field. For more than five decades, which includes 49 years at UD, Chou has studied composites, also known as composite materials. Composites are made by combining two or more materials to make a new substance with unique properties.

When Chou began his career, scientists largely worked on structural composites, such as particulate-reinforced polymeric, ceramic, and metal matrix composites. Airplanes, for example, are largely made of composite materials made for their structural properties.

Now, researchers aim to optimize the functionality of composites, often using nanoscience. For example, various researchers worldwide are looking to embed airplanes with carbon nanotubes or graphene. The conductivity of these materials might allow a plane to de-ice itself or repair itself if its exterior sustains damage.

“We used to do work in meters, centimeters, and millimeters,” he said. “Now we can extend it to the nanoscale.”

Chou himself has published hundreds of papers on composites, including 10 so far this year. Much of his current work focuses on carbon nanotube and graphene fibers and films.

Researchers are constantly discovering new applications for composite materials, and this is exciting—but also challenging.

“To be able to take advantage of the opportunities, I myself have to change,” he said. “I must learn new things all the time.”

Chou learns with his students as they conduct research. He consults with other colleagues. During his career, he has even sat in on classes in other departments in order to expand his knowledge base. In his talk at ICCM-21, he emphasized the importance of personal renewal.

He also credited students who have done research under his guidance, listing their names throughout the presentation. Many of his former UD students were in attendance, and Chou had dinner with 16 former students and their family members. All of these former students are thriving as post-doctoral researchers, university faculty and leaders in industry.

They talked about the good times—and rigorous work—during their training at UD. When students give Chou a draft of a manuscript, he spends hours writing notes on the hard copy by hand. He describes this feedback to students as “the best gift I can give to them.”

Chou has influenced many people at UD over his career.

“For over two decades at the University of Delaware – from my time as a graduate student to a faculty member– I have had the opportunity to learn from Professor Chou. Over those years he has been a teacher, mentor, friend, and colleague,” said Erik Thostenson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, who attended the ICCM conference.

“In nearly a half-century as faculty in mechanical engineering at the UD he has made pioneering accomplishments in the field of advanced composite materials,” said Thostenson. His plenary address at ICCM highlighted his recent advances in nanostructured materials and composites – with functional applications ranging from energy storage to electromagnetic wave interference shielding and absorption– in the broader context of his foundational research in the mechanics of advanced fiber composites.

Ajay Prasad, chair of the mechanical engineering department, said: “Dr. Chou’s research accomplishments are legendary. He first established a global reputation in fiber-reinforced composite materials, and then went on to reinvent himself as one of the foremost experts on carbon nanotube- and graphene-based materials for structural and energy applications. I have admired and respected Dr. Chou my entire time at UD. He was already one of the department’s senior professors when I was hired, and he then became an excellent role model as department chair. His scholarly productivity is amazing and he shows no sign of slowing down!”

Jack Gillespie, Director of the Center for Composite Materials, said: “Dr. Chou is one of the founders and intellectual leaders of the center.  His life-long achievements and dedication to academic excellence has established the standard that we all strive to achieve as faculty and mentors.  Over the past four decades, I’ve witnessed firsthand Dr. Chou’s extraordinary ability to launch new research initiatives from microstructure-property relationships in short fiber composites, textile composites, ceramic matrix composites and more recently multi-functional nanocomposites. In all cases, he has emerged as an international expert in each of these fields and has been highly recognized by his peers with numerous prestigious international awards that are so very well deserved”.

Chou has received numerous accolades over his career. He is a Fellow of AME, ASM, ASC, ACerS, TMS and AIAA. He is the editor-in-chief of the journal Composites Science and Technology and won the 2017 Albert Sauveur Achievement Award of ASM International.