Tsu-Wei Chou is among the longest-serving professors in the College of Engineering
Many of today’s technological marvels — from aircraft to automobiles to wind turbine blades — are made of strong, lightweight composite materials, or composites. In the field of composites, Tsu-Wei Chou, Unidel Pierre S. du Pont Chair in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, is legendary.
He has published nearly 380 journal articles and book chapters as well as two books. He was named among the top 100 materials scientists of the past decade by Times Higher Education. He has served as editor and then editor-in-chief of the international journal Composites Science and Technology since 1985. He has a lengthy list of awards and society fellowships and most recently was named Honorary Adviser for the Innovation Center for Advanced Nanocomposites, Chinese Academy of Sciences. And he is beloved by the dozens of former students he has mentored, who are now engineering leaders all over the world.
As Chou celebrates his 50th year as a faculty member at the University of Delaware, he reflected on how the field of composites has evolved and why his enthusiasm for his job never wanes.
Chou’s UD story started in 1969, when he was still a graduate student at Stanford University. The late Prof. Jerry Schultz of UD chemical engineering, then on sabbatical at Stanford, approached Chou in the graduate student office and told him about an open faculty position at UD. The new professor would teach in the mechanical engineering department and the materials and metallurgy program — the latter of which predated today’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering department.
Chou was intrigued. “Such a totally unexpected opportunity interested me immensely, because unlike most of the students in the department at Stanford, I had a strong interest in applied mechanics,” he said.
His first day at UD was Sept. 1, 1969 — just 43 days after the first moon landing and 25 days before The Beatles released the album Abbey Road.
As a new professor, Chou taught courses in two programs, which was challenging and rewarding. In 1970, mechanical engineering professor Jack Vinson invited Chou to co-teach a course in composite materials, and in 1974, they established the internationally renowned Center for Composite Materials. In 1985-86, Chou participated in establishing the first composites manufacturing based National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center as well as the ARO University Research Initiative Center at UD.
Since Chou’s career began, the field of composites has evolved tremendously. For one, the materials are now used in flight and on the road. Chou recalled the first time he boarded a Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, he was excited — it was a moment he describes as marvelous. The plane was not only a beautiful engineering accomplishment but also the first major commercial application of fiber composites, which comprise 50 percent of the aircraft weight. They are lighter than materials traditionally used in aircraft. “People have recognized the importance of composites on aircraft,” said Chou. “A lighter aircraft with the same engine can carry more load, more people.”
He thinks automobiles are the next frontier for these composites because while thousands of planes are built every year, millions of cars are manufactured.
“Major automobile companies are applying composites to their newest models, and the percentage is increasing every year,” he said. “By replacing traditional structural materials such as aluminum and steel with composites, you reduce the weight and increase the fuel efficiency.”
Chou aims to continuously identify new research directions and make contributions to understanding the fundamentals of composites. He has studied fiber materials, from glass to aramid to carbon. He has studied matrix materials, from polymer to metal to ceramics. He has worked on theoretical modeling, processing and manufacturing techniques and attacked problems at a variety of scales, from macro to micro to nano. He studies performance from structural to functional.
Composites engineers will continue making contributions from aeronautics and aerospace to infrastructures, from automobiles to soft robotics, and from huge wind turbine blades to nanocarbon based functional composites.
While the field of composites is thriving, and Chou is an important player in its success, he considers his impact on students and co-workers to be his most lasting accomplishment. Chou has mentored dozens of students. He teaches them how to write papers and present at conferences, but he also teaches them how to be successful.
“I think the more lasting impact is that they learn from me how I approach research,” he said. “You have to be hardworking and focused. There’s always frustration, failure, disappointment, but you just have to insist that you want to do it and you can accomplish it. That is not easy.”
He draws inspiration from an old Chinese saying: Diligence compensates shortcomings.
“I think I can say I’ve been working diligently all the time,” he said. “Looking back, I think that is perhaps the most important fact that has contributed to my ‘success.’”
During his first year at UD, Chou was invited to co-write a book with Vinson. That book, Composite Materials and Their Use in Structures, was published in 1975. Chou dedicated himself — spending nights, weekends, and any smidge of spare time in between all his other research and teaching responsibilities in two programs. These commitments might leave some feeling drained, but Chou felt thankful for the opportunities he received.
He used to take walks on The Green, which was dotted with large elm trees at the time. “I liked to walk around and relax and do some thinking,” he said. “Looking back, I felt sorry that my parents never had a life as enjoyable as mine, with peace and quiet. I can devote myself to do what I like to do.”
Chou’s parents faced World War II and then the civil war in China, conflicts that lasted almost their entire lives. “It was a difficult life, but they worked very hard in order for us to have a good education,” he said. “These memories impact me the most.”
Today, Chou is as curious and enthusiastic as ever and has no plans to slow down.
“When I get up in the morning, I like the feeling that I have something to look forward to for today: things to take care of, students I need to talk to, and problems we didn’t resolve yesterday that hopefully we will resolve today or tomorrow,” he said. “That kind of motivation is sustaining.”