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Ask an Academic: Mike Ashby

By: , Posted on: November 8, 2016

We sit down with Mike Ashby, materials science expert and author of Materials Selection in Mechanical Design in this Q&A to discuss his research and work.

  1. What is your particular area of expertise? Materials and Design
  1. How would you explain your current work to a stranger on a bus?

Everything you use, touch, travel in or sleep in is made of materials, indeed our comfort, health, security and prosperity all depend in varying degrees on materials.  I work with teams in Cambridge to assemble information about materials in the broadest sense – metals, plastics, ceramics and glasses, natural materials, biological materials – documenting their properties and the things you can do with them.  This is then built into software and teaching resources to help students understand materials and guide materials selection for engineering and product design.

  1. Where do you carry out most of your work?

I have three bases: Granta Design (a company based in Cambridge UK with offices also in the US and Germany), the Engineering Department at Cambridge University, and my own man-cave at home, lined with books, reports and work-stuff.

  1. What first inspired you to study Materials?

I’ve always been interested in drawing and making.  This plus really inspirational teaching during my undergraduate years at Cambridge about the physics, chemistry and engineering of materials gave me a direction that I have followed ever since.

  1. What’s the most exciting part of your job?

In common with most people, the moments of real excitement come when you’ve just had a good idea (and stop when you realize that it is not so good after all).  At another level, the Materials Education Symposia that Granta Design coordinates every year are always exciting.  And yet another, working on projects with the Resource Development team at Granta has much that is exciting.

  1. What keeps you awake at night?

Difficult colleagues – but I’m fortunate in having very few of those.

  1. What false preconceptions do people have about your job?

Probably the notion that materials are simple and that their properties are easy to understand. In reality, many seemingly straightforward properties like strength or toughness (resistance to breaking) depend on the internal structure of materials in ways that are so subtle that, while we understand broadly what controls them, we still, even with supercomputers, can’t yet predict them with the accuracy we would like.

  1. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned this week?

New approaches to increasing the thermoelectric figure-of-merit by control of composition and microstructure to maximize Seebeck coefficient and electrical conductivity while minimizing thermal conductivity all at the same time (quite a trick!).  Why is this significant?  Thermoelectric recovery of waste heat is on the verge of becoming economic – this research pushes it towards the threshold.

  1. What do you think will be the next big discovery or development in your field?

If the future is electric (as we increasingly believe it to be), the most significant materials developments may be those relating to energy storage (grid-scale electrical, kinetic and potential-energy storage systems like batteries, flywheel and pumped energy storage).

  1. How have you used books for your own professional research and how it influenced your work, research or thinking, or help you solve a problem in your field? What outcome did it lead to?

I LOVE my books.  I mark them up in the margins, fold down corners, put post-it notes on pages I want to go back and stick things in so that I find them when I need them, write on the outside covers.  That’s not disrespect; it’s a tribute to what the books can be.  They become part of your life, like favorite old clothes, your home, part of your environment.  It’s possible to do the same sort of thing electronically, but emotionally it doesn’t come close.

materials selection in mechanical design

Mike’s latest book, Materials Selection in Mechanical Design is available to pre-order on the Elsevier store now. Save up to 30%, enter STC315 at the checkout!

  • Includes significant revisions to chapters on advanced materials selection methods and process selection, with coverage of newer processing developments such as additive manufacturing
  • Contains a broad scope of new material classes covered in the text with expanded data tables that include “functional” materials such as piezoelectric, magnetostrictive, magneto-caloric, and thermo-electric materials
  • Presents improved pedagogy, such as new worked examples throughout the text and additional end-of-chapter exercises (moved from an appendix to the relevant chapters) to aid in student learning and to keep the book fresh for instructors through multiple semesters
  • “Forces for Change” chapter has been re-written to outline the links between materials and sustainable design

A full listing of Professor Ashby’s books can be found here.

About the Author:

mike ashbyRoyal Society Research Professor Emeritus at Cambridge University and Former Visiting Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, London, UK Mike Ashby is sole or lead author of several of Elsevier’s top selling engineering textbooks, including Materials and Design: The Art and Science of Material Selection in Product Design, Materials Selection in Mechanical Design, Materials and the Environment, and Materials: Engineering, Science, Processing and Design. He is also coauthor of the books Engineering Materials 1&2, and Nanomaterials, Nanotechnologies and Design.

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Materials Science

The highly interdisciplinary field of materials science examines elements of applied physics and chemistry, as well as chemical, mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering. Nanoscience and nanotechnology in particular have yielded major innovations in this area, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes. Elsevier’s authoritative content in this area ranges from undergraduate textbooks to multi-volume reference works investigating the relationships between the structure of materials and their properties. Our journals (including Materials Today), books, and eBooks help researchers stay abreast of developments in this swiftly advancing field, coving major sub-disciplines like energy and power; metals and alloys; ceramics; composite materials; polymer science and biomaterials; interdisciplinary materials science; and structural materials.