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UW-Eau Claire's Materials Science Center Serving Wisconsin Businesses

RELEASED: July 5, 2005

Doug Dunham and student in Materials Science Center
Doug Dunham, assistant professor of physics, and senior physics major Sara Chamberlin use equipment in the Material Science Center. (UW-Eau Claire photo by Rick Mickelson)

EAU CLAIRE — Before connecting with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls-based Northern Crossarm Co. was spending significant dollars to get its wood products weather tested.

The weather testing helps determine if the innovative, environmentally-safe preservative Envirosafe Plus™ that the 83-year-old pressure treatment lumber company uses penetrates the wood deeply enough, an analysis that is necessary for its products to be certified.

"The analysis was costing the company a lot of money because it had to send samples to a testing facility in the state of Washington," said Dr. Kim Pierson, a UW-Eau Claire professor of physics and astronomy. "By using state-of-the-art equipment in the Materials Science Center and faculty consultants, Northern Crossarm is doing the analysis for a fraction of the cost."

Pierson and student researchers constructed a wood weathering station that simulates 30 years of exposure to rain and sunlight. The university's electron microscopy laboratory is then used to analyze the wood samples to determine the depth of penetration before weathering and the retention afterward, Pierson said. Once the company is satisfied with results, the samples are sent to an accredited lab for final analysis, he said.

"The weather chamber gives us the same basic information we'd been receiving from the labs but it costs us a few dollars instead of tens of thousands of dollars," said Patrick Bischel, owner of Northern Crossarm. "We still send samples to the labs for certification but we have some assurances now — before we spend the big dollars — that what we're sending will do well."

"We act as a middle man to help them decrease costs," Pierson said of the center. "And we're a good reality check. We have nothing to gain by enhancing results so we provide independent verification."

The project with Northern Crossarm is an example of the kind of connections UW-Eau Claire has made with regional industries in the year since it opened its Materials Science Center.

"The center brings together UW-Eau Claire's materials science resources in a way that makes it easier for the university to assist local industries," Dr. Doug Dunham, the center's director, said, explaining that materials science involves the study of the structure and properties of materials, the creation of new materials and tailoring materials for specific uses. It includes things like metals, semiconductors, ceramics and plastics.

“The center provides a central connection to industry and the community that individual science departments cannot offer," Dunham said, noting that advancing materials and developing new materials are important to economic development in the state.

For an hourly fee, industries can use the center's specialized instruments, providing them high-quality equipment without the expense of purchasing or maintaining it, Dunham said, noting that few universities in the region have such specialized equipment. They can bring their own trained staff in to use the instruments or pay a UW-Eau Claire scientist to do the work.

"We are highly educated scientists with a lot to offer businesses," said Pierson, who has worked closely with two businesses since the center opened. "As scientists, we solve problems. We're a resource. We're here to help businesses solve problems and develop new technologies."

Having those kinds of resources so close by has been a tremendous asset, said Kevin Hunt of Northern Crossarm. "Whatever we've wanted, they've been willing to do," Hunt said of faculty. "It's not about the money first. It's about solving the problem and getting us what we need. With their help, we're doing things that we could never do on our own and we're gaining information that we never had access to before."

The center helped Northern Crossarm make its product more cost-effective while also assuring customers that they're getting a quality product, Bischel said. "They're helping us fine-tune the treatment process," he said. "As a result, it's more cost effective so we can use it for more applications than we originally could, which opens up new markets for us.

"This relationship makes opportunities available that we, as a small company, would not have otherwise. We're able to go further with reinforcement of the product than we could on our own. We know things that we would only have been able to guess at and guessing is not a good way to introduce a new product."

Jeffrey Cernohous, president of the western Wisconsin-based technology development and licensing company Interfacial Solutions, uses the center's equipment and consults with faculty to do research for the businesses his company contracts with.

"The Materials Science Center has real value, especially for a small start-up company like mine," Cernohous said. "I have a Ph.D. in chemistry but I need access to expensive chemical instrumentation. What UW-Eau Claire is doing really helps small businesses that can't afford that kind of equipment. And the added benefit of getting experts like Kim Pierson and Doug Dunham to assist is really valuable. It has definitely had a major impact on some of my consulting work."

For example, Cernohous and Pierson worked together to develop technology that helps extend the life of helium balloons. Cernohous' client, a balloon manufacturer, wanted to find out where helium was leaking from its balloons, causing them to deflate more quickly than the business wanted. Pierson created a small probe that allowed Cernohous to identify specifically where on the balloon the helium was escaping. The technology now allows the business to do some of its product testing in a matter of minutes instead of weeks, Cernohous said.

"This work has been very important to my customer," Cernohous said. "And from my perspective, it is helping with the technology development cycle."

Making state-of-the-art technology available to business and industry is incredible in its own right, Cernohous said, noting that UW-Eau Claire was the only institution he contacted willing to provide him with access to its instruments. "But what's even more impressive is the faculty's willingness to go the extra mile to help out," he said. "They were there late at night and on weekends to work with us. They bent over backward to make this work for us. I give the faculty and the university much credit for its commitment to helping small businesses."

The connections with local industries also help area businesses identify talented students who may be future employees and they help students better understand career opportunities available to them at western Wisconsin businesses, Dunham said.

For example, a UW-Eau Claire student who had worked with Pierson on other research projects during the spring semester is now working with the weathering project this summer and is serving as a liaison between the university and the business, Pierson said. "It's a great situation for both the student and the business," he said.

For more information about the Materials Science Center, contact Dr. Doug Dunham at (715) 836-5312 or dunhamdj@uwec.edu.

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JB

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