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  • Katherine Faber, the Simon Ramo Professor of Materials Science
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Office of Strategic Communications
11/07/2014 16:04:49

Making Hotter Engines and Lasting Artwork: An Interview with Katherine Faber

Ceramics are extremely versatile materials. Because they can be formed into a variety of shapes and serve as effective insulators from heat, they're used in thousands of applications ranging from dainty porcelain teacups to hardy barrier coatings in engines. However, the characteristic brittle nature of ceramics can often be the material's Achilles' heel. New faculty member Katherine Faber, Simon Ramo Professor of Materials Science in Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, studies the reasons why brittle ceramics fracture—and how these materials can be made stronger and tougher in the future.

Faber, who comes to Caltech from Northwestern University, received her bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering from Alfred University, her master's degree in ceramic science from Penn State, and a doctorate in materials science from UC Berkeley.

Recently, she spoke about her work, her background, and how her research interests have been applied to sustainability and the arts.


What will you be working on in your laboratory at Caltech?

My training is in ceramic materials, studying the fracture of brittle solids. If we understand enough about how brittle materials fail, we can then design new materials that are more robust. In particular, I am interested in high-temperature materials—those desirable for energy-related applications. This includes, for example, the ceramic coatings that are used in power-generation applications, as thermal-barrier coatings in engines. These very-high-temperature materials provide insulation, protecting underlying metallic materials, so that an engine can run hotter and hence more efficiently. Right now, we are characterizing new coating systems for next-generation engines.


Does your laboratory also make brand-new materials?

Yes we do. One thing that I have found through the years is that often times the materials I want to study are ones that don't exist. That has moved my research into ceramic processing. Currently we are looking at strategies to make ceramic materials that are filled with pores. Such ceramics might be used as filters, in fuel cells, or as biological scaffolds into which cells can grow. Beyond processing, it is essential to characterize the pores. It's not just the pore size, or what fraction of the material is porous, but how tortuous the pathway through the porous network is. This will determine the ease of flow or filtration capabilities Each application may require a different level of connectivity and tortuosity. Here, we rely on three-dimensional imaging to illustrate these features.


Your work also touches on art conservation. How did that come about?

Yes, that's the other part of my work. It all happened rather serendipitously more than a decade ago. When I was chair of my department at Northwestern, the Art Institute of Chicago received funding to hire its very first PhD-level conservation scientist. Museum staff approached me to see if our department of materials science and engineering might be interested in collaborating with their scientist in order to provide a scholarly community and possible opportunities for research. We gladly forged the partnership. My personal involvement included projects on jades and porcelains. But I also became the matchmaker, finding the right people within the university for the right problems at the Art Institute.

Art conservation is not what I was trained to do, but involvement in museum work has become an important part of my career. It's still materials science and engineering, it's just that the "materials" in the museum projects happen to be valuable works of art.

We've been able to involve students through the years, and they, too, see this as a thrilling opportunity to take their training in materials science and engineering to one of the great museums of the world.


Do you also enjoy the arts in your spare time?

I've always loved going to art museums, and I'm really looking forward to exploring the museums here in Los Angeles. To be within walking distance of the Huntington Library is just extraordinary. I also love the theater, so I'm ready to discover the Pasadena Playhouse and beyond. We already have tickets for a couple of shows.


Are there any other reasons that you're excited to have made the move from Chicago to Southern California?

Well, given the winter that we had in Chicago last year, I am very excited that I don't have to shovel snow this winter. To wake up in the morning and go outside your door to grab a fresh grapefruit off of a tree—that's pretty cool.


What else are you looking forward to about being at Caltech?

One of the best things about moving to a new institution later in one's career is that it provides an opportunity to make new connections and work on new problems. That's what I'm most excited about. I suspect that as I meet people across the campus and at JPL I'll learn about a host of new research problems that will intrigue me.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad