SAN ANTONIO—There's excitement in C. Michael Roland's voice when he talks about polymer science.
The 2012 Charles Goodyear Medalist uses words such as “very interesting,” “really neat,” “amazing” and “fascinating” to describe discoveries made while studying elastomers and other polymers for more than 30 years, mostly at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
The accomplishments of the head of the NRL Polymer Physics Section that brought him the ACS Rubber Division's highest technical award, presented at the group's spring meeting in San Antonio, are diverse. Officially, the discoveries for which he was cited include:
— density scaling of viscoelastic properties and its relation to the steepness of the intermolecular repulsive potential;
— the invariance of relaxation times at various phase transitions;
— the non-ideality of polymer isotope mixtures and dynamic heterogeneity in miscible blends;
— phenomena in rubbery networks, including properties of double network rubbers and the origin of the Mullins effect; and
— elastomeric coatings that enhance the resistance of hard substrates to impact penetration, technology applicable to military armor and civilian infrastructure protection.
Focus on chemistry
His career really began in high school, Roland said. He was interested in physics, but his teacher made the subject boring, so he turned his focus to chemistry.
“I liked to play basketball, and did that a lot more than I applied myself to science,” he recalls. So when it became time for college, he chose Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., because he believed he'd have a better shot at playing college basketball at a smaller school.
“I made correct decisions for the wrong reasons,” he said. A knee injury waylaid his career, and he “learned there are other things in college.”
After receiving his bachelor's degree in chemistry—he was magna cum laude—Roland went to work as a lab instructor, although he never considered that his real career path. “I had to teach lab to 30 some student nurses. What a burden that was for a young guy right out of college,” he said.
He began studying chemistry at Pennsylvania State University, where his adviser was William A. Steele, today professor emeritus of the PSU Department of Chemistry.
Steele is a formal person who people viewed as stiff, Roland said; no one called him by his first name, he was always Dr. Steele. But when it came to science, he became a role model for Roland.
“The one thing that excited him was science,” Roland said, and they would talk endlessly and enthusiastically about the subject.
A good year before he graduated with a doctorate in chemistry, Roland began interviewing for jobs at the suggestion of his adviser, since “it would be good practice.” He got two offers.
DuPont was honest, he said, and told him he'd be troubleshooting, doing short-term work at plants. George Bohm of Firestone Central Research said he'd work for that company mostly on long-term projects. Roland jumped at it.
“We were fighting some fires, but always had some long-term projects,” he said.
Roland became immersed in rubber and polymers, of which he said “I never knew anything,” and read and learned everything he could on the subjects. He laughs about how he had to pass on playing bridge—a passion he shared with many at the research center—during lunchtime, because he needed to spend his time studying the literature.
He would have been content to spend his career working for Firestone, he said. But the company went into decline as a result of the Firestone 500 tire recall and a downturn in the auto industry.
“They would close plants, cut back on R&D. It didn't look like a healthy situation,” he said. He started to look around.
In the Navy
He got an offer from Bill Moniz of the Naval Research Laboratory, who said Roland would find and work on his own projects.
“Of course I didn't believe that for a second,” Roland said. Yet it was true—a researcher's dream.
“The downside is you have to go find someone to support it,” he said. “That can be stressful, but a little pressure is probably healthy.”
Work at the NRL is very broad, not confined to naval or military matters. The NRL was the brainchild of Thomas Edison, who wanted to see a place created where basic research could be done, attracting good people who would work on military as well as other problems, Roland said.
The measure of success of an NRL project, Roland said, is getting the work published, and thereby disseminating knowledge. His own measure: more than 350 peer-reviewed publications, 24 book chapters, 13 patents and publication of his own book, “Viscoelastic Behavior of Rubber Materials,” last year. His publications have been cited 7,800 times in papers, he's given 134 lectures, and chaired the Gordon Research Conference on Elastomers, Networks and Gels in 1996.
Over the years Roland and his staff—which includes post-doctoral students who sign on for one to three years—have received funding from a variety of sources. “I even got money to study guayule, a three-year project,” he said.
While much of the work may be sensitive, it's usually not classified, Roland said. He has steered clear of classified work, which has many requirements, such as not using a laser printer because it has memory, utilizing burn bags, couriers, etc.
“I understand the reason for that but I didn't want to get involved. It is such a pain.” Roland said one of the major pitfalls of classified work is that it can't get peer review, and you end up with “not really solid work because no one is asking questions about it. That's unfortunate.”
Among the applications his work has furthered was a project to study the use of polyurea coating to protect military vehicles against bullets.
Roland said the Navy had sprayed building foundations with polyurea to make them bombproof, and decided to try to do the same for vehicles. Roland and his team successfully studied how it worked, and how to make it better.
“It was a lot of fun. We'd take things down to the Indian Head Naval Base, and shoot holes in them,” he said. In a more serious tone, Roland said there's a lot of money available for military-type research since 911.
“Terrorism is a terrible thing. But in the research community it opens a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Another military project Roland work-ed on was developing an elastomeric torpedo launcher, solving the problem of noise and the use of space in the tight quarters of a torpedo tube.
“It was successful from the technical point of view,” he said, but since an attack sub is built at a pace of perhaps one every four years, the contractor wouldn't adopt the innovation.
Roland said he has the opportunity to do consulting work, as long as it is approved beforehand and doesn't interfere with his NRL projects. “Court testimony at trials is very exciting. I don't think I could do it for a living, but once every great while, it's fun. It gets you exposed to doing things that are very much different from what you do for a living.”
One such case had a deja vu aspect to it.
He was hired to consult for Bridgestone/Firestone—successor owner of his first employer—in the Firestone ATX/¼Wilderness-Ford Explorer rollover cases.
He was expected to be called to testify before Congress, but found out he'd be testifying against other U.S. government entities, the departments of Transportation and Justice, which isn't allowed.
The scientist ended up being a behind- the-scenes consultant.
Roland is very public about his positive opinion of the Rubber Division. He has served as editor of Rubber Chemistry & Technology, and previously won the Sparks-Thomas Award for younger scientists. He believes the division fills a vital role in the rubber industry.
“The Rubber Division steering committee and others volunteer their time and talents, and they don't get much credit for that,” he said. He especially noted the division's scholarships and various activities to attract young people to the field.
“At least they are trying to bring rubber science to the next generation,” he said. “Our technology is at the top of our game, but that advantage can be lost.”