Engineering graduate earns two national awards for work at national research lab

April 9, 2024 (Volume 47, Number 16)
Article by Thomas Garrett

A Grand Valley graduate has been globally recognized twice for his research at the forefront of additive manufacturing, studying the intricate facets of metals and their properties, and developing new alloys for the future of manufacturing. 

Alex Plotkowski, ’12, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in product design and manufacturing at GVSU. He now works as a staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Plotkowski and others at ORNL earned R&D 100 awards in 2022 and 2023 for, respectively, creating a new aluminum alloy and developing a platform for neutron diffraction measurements. The R&D 100 Awards take place every year, often referred to by those involved as “the Oscars of innovation,” honoring research and development pioneers for their revolutionary ideas in science and technology. 

After receiving a doctorate from Purdue University in 2016, Plotkowski said he noticed the major direction of the research world for metallurgy and heat transfer was moving toward additive manufacturing.

“I wanted to take my skills in industrial and mechanical engineering I learned from GVSU and the computational skills I learned from Purdue, and apply them to these exciting new research areas,” said Plotkowski.

Using his network of peers, Plotkowski connected with Suresh Babu, an advanced manufacturing professor at the University of Tennessee. Babu is well-known in the welding community and was also researching additive manufacturing. After going out of his way to attend an engineering conference, Plotkowski introduced himself to Babu and was asked to apply for a post-doctoral position.

“The position was really attractive to me, plus Dr. Babu was an extremely nice and excited guy, who was very well connected,” said Plotkowski. “I ended up spending a lot of time at the lab, and with the connections I made there, plus working hard during my post-doc, I ended up turning it into a permanent position.”

In 2022, Plotkowski and others received an R&D 100 award for creating a new aluminum alloy at ORNL. Plotkowski led a team in the development of DuAlumin-3D, a strong and lightweight aluminum alloy that is more resistant to corrosion, heat and fatigue. The alloy is designed for additive manufacturing to fabricate complex components for applications including vehicles and aircraft, making them safer and tougher.

The 2023 R&D 100 award that Plotkowski and other researchers at ORNL received was for developing a platform for neutron diffraction measurements, the OpeN-AM experimental platform.

Similar to X-rays, neutron diffraction uses waves of energy, he said. When that wave is diffracted off a material its pattern can be measured and analyzed to determine a variety of characteristics of the material. The difference is neutron diffraction has much better penetration depth than X-rays, allowing larger components to be measured, making it well suited for engineering applications.

“The other part of this research is working with companies to get that material, or to get that useful data, out into the world, and make those applications better,” said Plotkowski. “This is where we work to build partnerships with companies like GM, Honda, Boeing, and it ends up being a huge cooperative effort to solve these industry problems, combining what both groups are the best at and putting that together."

One thing that Plotkowski said he noticed after working with people from universities across the country “was how much more we practice writing and communicating at GVSU than the other schools.” 

“How can research have an impact if you are not sharing it with anyone?” he said. Plotkowski added he especially appreciated Princewill Anyalebechi, professor of product design and manufacturing engineering, and the rigorous lab reports he had to submit during his sophomore year at GVSU. 

“It drove me crazy, and he was very strict, but it forced me to hone those skills that are so valuable to me now,” said Plotkowski.

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This article was last edited on April 9, 2024 at 1:14 p.m.

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