Rod Ruoff

We hear a lot of doom-and-gloom about the future. The world will be too hot, too crowded. There will be too few resources and more competition for them. The University of Texas at Austin asked campus researchers for the opposite — the ideas, technologies, policies or combinations that will make it possible for the world to be a better place in the future. In this third installment of the university's "The Big Question" series, Mechanical Engineering Professor Rod Ruoff responds to the question "What in your field could make the world a better place?"

The history of materials has evolved from the use of natural materials such as wood, rock, animal skin and others to man-made materials such as ceramics, metals, glasses, composites and semiconductors (i.e. electronic materials).

While life on earth has been based on carbon, new ways to arrange carbon atoms produce materials that are now at the cusp of a transition from basic science to scaled production that will lead systems and devices in the next several decades with heretofore unattainable performance. If this promise is fulfilled, it can so transform technology and society that in 25-50 years we will look back and refer to the Stone, Bronze, Iron and Steel Ages while living in the "Carbon Age."

Energy, large-scale structures, autos and planes, information technology, electric motors, chemical and biological sensors and medical devices, will be particularly impacted. Energy harvesting and generation using carbon materials will revolutionize the way electricity is produced, stored and transmitted through improved solar and fuel cells, ultracapacitors and batteries, and implementation in high tension transmission lines. Extraordinary strength and light weight carbon structures made of new types of graphite (and graphene) and diamond will replace steel, aluminum and other current materials.

Carbon electronics promise exceptionally fast switching speeds, and ultrathin graphite has the potential to replace copper for communication, antennas, superinductors, and make possible electric motors one-third the weight of conventional motors.

New carbons in development show a path toward achieving electrical energy storage densities rivaling lead acid batteries but with much longer cycle life and improved efficiency. Strong, tough, low density continuous nanotube composites and components comprised of large area graphene and new forms of ultrathin graphite may allow design of automobiles and airplanes with exceptional improvement in fuel economy by significantly reducing weight.

Medicine can use new nano-carbons for micro-devices as carbon is perhaps the only material for non-metallic tiny electronic devices hermetically sealed for biomedical applications.

Graphene and ultrathin graphite will be integral in thermal management applications, from cooling computer chips to making buildings more energy efficient. Novel 3-D porous carbons that also have beautiful topologies ("negative curvature carbons") will play a critical role as the likely ultimate electrode material for ultracapacitors.

It is particularly exciting to me that what one could call "the element of life" here on earth, carbon, when present in pure form and when 3-D (diamond, graphite, others), 2-D (graphene, the "honeycomb structure" of C-C bonds), or 1-D (carbon nanotubes), may be the element that, in such geometries, will drive a new industrial revolution.

January 17, 2019

Beloved Longhorn and Chemical Engineering Legend John J. McKetta Jr. Dies at 103

John J. McKetta Jr., professor emeritus and dean emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin and namesake to the chemical engineering department in the Cockrell School of Engineering, died Tuesday, Jan. 15 at age 103. Calling UT Austin ... Keep Reading

January 14, 2019

Remembering Former Texas Engineering Dean Earnest F. Gloyna (1921-2019)

Earnest F. Gloyna, former dean of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Engineering (now the Cockrell School of Engineering), died on Jan. 9 at the age of 97, leaving behind a legacy marked by exceptional leadership and ... Keep Reading

January 03, 2019

Two UT Engineers Elected to National Academy of Inventors

Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, and Alex Huang, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have been selected as fellows in the prestigious National Academy of Inventors (NAI) for 2018. They are the ... Keep Reading

cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students
cover of Texas Engineering magazine with group of students