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June 24, 2011 at 12:43 PM

UW prof, alloys pioneer wins Kyoto Prize

An affiliate professor at the University of Washington today received the prestigious (and lucrative) Kyoto Prize for global achievement, for his pioneering work in materials science and engineering.

John Cahn, 83, was awarded the 27th annual Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology from Japan’s Inamori Foundation. It comes with a 20-karat gold medal and a cash prize of about $625,000.


Cahn has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of Science in 1998. He has been a member of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland since 1984 and is now an emeritus senior fellow.

The head of the NIST metallurgy division, Frank Gayle, explained that Cahn’s work has contributed to metals, plastics and other materials used in all sorts of common products.

“John’s developments in the theory and models of materials has given scientists tools to understand and make new materials ranging from metals to plastics to ceramics and glass,” Gayle said in a prepared statement. “For instance, your smartphone or laptop computer might contain 100 different materials, and John’s work has probably influenced the understanding and development of half of those.”

The Kyoto Prize was awarded for his establishment of the theory of spinodal decomposition. The announcement cites his work, which began in the 1950s, when “researchers attempting to maximize the potential of alloy materials were forced to take a trial-and-error approach.” Cahn and colleague John Hilliard at General Electric deveoped a “method to describe the process of phase separation.”

Their equation “has played a key role in materials science and engineering, explaining phenomena as simple as the formation of frost patterns on a car’s windshield — and as complex as the clumping of galaxies in the early universe.led to a more systematic approach to materials development.”

Cahn went on to establish a theory of “three-dimensional spinodal decomposition” that extended a theory formulated by Dr. Mats Hillert. The release continued:

“In addition to expanding Hillert’s theoretical treatment into three dimensions, he incorporated an elastic strain-energy term, allowing alloy materials to be engineered for highly specific structural and functional characteristics. This theory has since found universal application in the design and production of better-performing metals, glass,

semiconductors, polymers, and thermal materials requiring unique properties — including extreme strength, thermal conductivity, pore permeability, heat resistance, and magnetism. Dr. Cahn’s research findings have also laid the foundation for the phase-field method, one of the hottest research topics of recent years in the materials sciences. Taken as a whole, his work has spawned productive lines of research not only in metallurgy but also in physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, economics and demography.”

This year’s “basic sciences” Kyoto Prize went to Rashid Sunyaev, a Russian-German astrophysicist “and contributor to high-energy astronomy who proposed the theory that

fluctuations in cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) may be used to explore the

expanding universe.” He’s director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Science’s Space Research Institute and a visiting professor at the Insititute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

The “arts and philosophies” award went to Tamasaburo Bando V, a Japanese Kabuki actor specializing in female roles. “Tamasaburo is known as a creator of elegant beauty whose artistry crosses many genres of the performing arts,” the release said.

Comments | More in | Topics: Education, Research


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