Kyle Webber ’03:Leading the Way in Glass and Ceramics Innovation
Kyle Webber ’03:Leading the Way in Glass and Ceramics Innovation

As director of the Institute of Glass and Ceramics in Erlangen, Germany, Webber is undertaking pioneering research and inspiring future generations

While taking Professor Richard Reed’s CAD (computer-aided design) graphics class at Maine Maritime Academy in the fall of 2000, Kyle Webber and several fellow students, including future MMA board trustee Dr. Alaina Adams, decided to reverse-engineer an old Honda children’s scooter. Drawing on “all the components in CAD,” recounts Professor Reed, the project “demonstrated Webber’s and his team’s capabilities to take on a very difficult task and see it through to completion.”

Kyle WebberImpressed by Webber’s leadership skills, Reed hired him to be TA for the class. “His peers appreciated his knowledge and ability to mentor them through challenges they faced learning CAD,” he recalls. When Webber asked him about his prospects for graduate school, Reed told him he would be successful at any engineering school in the country—and they would be lucky to have him.

Another MMA professor, Dr. Paul Wlodkowski, recalls meeting Webber during the spring 2003 semester in his Engineering Materials class. In his first year of teaching at MMA, fresh from industry, Dr. Wlodkowski brought in a number of examples of so-called “smart materials,” i.e., substances that could generate an electric signal during a mechanical excitation or, conversely, produce a force or displacement when activated with an electrical input.

This particular phenomenon, known as the piezoelectric effect, had served as a basis for Dr. Wlodkowski’s developing various technologies for the U.S. Navy, particularly hydrophones and accelerometers. Webber found this topic of great interest, and by the end of that semester, he had applied to graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology to pursue further studies. By that point, Dr. Wlodkowski says, he had a good sense that his student would go far in the field of materials science and engineering.

Kyle Webber ‘03 on a training cruise while at Maine Maritime Academy.

Lo and behold, Webber followed through, earning degrees at Georgia Tech, after which he moved to Germany, married, started a family, and became a world-renowned authority in electroceramics and ferroelectric materials. His story is as astonishing as it is inspiring. Let’s go back to the beginning….

Webber was born in Bangor, Maine, and raised in Scarborough. In high school he was interested in engineering—and in seeing the world. At the same time his father convinced him that having a license was a good thing. Learning that Maine Maritime Academy offered all three, he applied and got in.

Among Webber’s earliest memories of his time at MMA is MUG (Midshipmen Under-Guidance) month when, as a freshman, he suddenly found himself getting an earful from his superiors and spending two weeks aboard the State of Maine. “That was my introduction to the regiment,” he recalls.

For someone who had had a travel bug since he was a kid—he had spent five weeks in Russia on a student exchange while in high school—Webber welcomed the opportunity to ship off to the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Brazil. He remembers watching dolphins leap through the waves, brilliant sunsets, and “all the stars you could never really see from cities.”

Webber in front of the Materials Science Building in Germany

Reflecting on how his MMA education has helped him succeed in life, Webber starts with the work ethic. Stripping wax off floors at 3:00 in the morning because you’re going to be in port the next day, “you start to realize what real hard work looks like”—a vital thing to learn, he feels, especially for young people. “How to deal with adversity,” Webber avers, “is a really big thing” as was acquiring a sense of responsibility.

When he arrived at MMA, Webber knew nothing about mechanics. By the time he graduated, he had gained a broad education in engineering that enabled him to fix his car, including the exhaust pipe “because in Maine it rusts off every six months.”

Webber flourished in MMA’s five-year Marine Systems Engineering (MSE) program—what Professor Wlodkowski likes to refer to as the school’s “crown jewel”—that is part of the Harold Alfond School of Engineering. Webber numbers Wlodkowski and Reed among the most motivating of his teachers.

Webber notes that the hands-on training at the Maine Maritime Academy continues to help him in research, as designing and making his own measurement equipment has always been an important part of his research.

Webber’s vision of a future career took further shape at Georgia Tech. Knowing from his experience at MMA that he didn’t want to be on a ship the rest of his life, he figured he’d be an “engineer on land.” He signed up for various mechanics-based classes. For his doctorate he worked on the mechanics of piezoelectric materials, which involved computer programming and modeling as well as experiments and theoretical work.

On a research stay in Darmstadt, Germany, Webber met his future wife. They stayed in touch after he returned to Georgia and she ended up joining him in Atlanta for the final two years of his studies at Georgia Tech. As he completed his Ph.D., they decided to start out in Germany.

Webber had studied a little German before moving, but shifted to intensive German courses and full language immersion after moving to Europe. He studied four to five hours a day for several months before starting his postdoctoral position at the Technische Univeristät Darmstadt in 2008.

During his time in Darmstadt, Webber was inspired by the innovative and multifaceted research as well as the numerous international collaborations, which convinced him to continue doing research in Germany. Eventually, he was appointed Professor for Functional Ceramics at the Institute of Glass and Ceramics at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in 2015.

This image, captured with Raman spectroscopy, shows the microscopic regions within a single grain inside of a polycrystalline ceramic material. The differently colored regions are areas of varying crystal orientation and structure, which are affected by electrical, mechanical, and optical fields. How these regions change under load largely determines the functional properties observed in piezoelectric materials.

The Institute of Glass and Ceramics is very international, with around 60% of the students hailing from foreign countries and nearly every continent. “Science is a good way to communicate and helps break down barriers and create bridges between different people,” notes Webber, adding, “it’s not about politics or people’s feelings: You communicate on a scientific level.”

As Professor of Functional Ceramics in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Webber seeks to teach his students critical thinking. He wants them to digest the information he has given them, not simply memorize and “regurgitate” it. He also hopes they’ll make connections with other classes in the institute, which are interwoven so as to build upon and reinforce each other. “I think that’s really important, that the courses are not insulated.”

Asked what functional materials are, Webber ventures that if you asked five people that question, you’d get six different answers. For him, a functional material, such as ceramics, is one that can provide a coupling between fields—mechanical, electrical, thermal, magnetic, optical, etc.—that is not normally there. At the institute, he works on functional ceramics that can convert mechanical input energy into an electrical output signal, or, conversely, an electrical input into a mechanical displacement. These materials, called piezoelectrics, are very useful for actuators and sensors, such as ultrasound transducers.

The institute undertakes fundamental research with a goal of developing new materials and understanding their properties. Webber and his team are working on ways to apply their research to a host of applications, including high energy density ceramic capacitors, vibrational energy harvesting systems for unattended wireless sensors, high temperature piezoelectric transducers, and ceramic films. They have also been working to develop lead-free ferroelectric materials.

Over time, Webber rose to director of the Institute of Glass and Ceramics—what his former professor Dr. Wlodkowski calls “the Mount Olympus of academia.” In addition to teaching, he manages research projects that reach around the world and has authored or co-authored more than 140 peer-reviewed publications in the field of electroceramics.

This experimental arrangement is designed for the mechanical testing of ceramic materials as a function of temperature. The sample, shown in the middle (yellowish color), undergoes compression within a heating chamber. Additionally, electrical contacts allow for simultaneous mechanical and electrical measurements during testing.

In addition to this, Webber is the director of an International Research and Training Group, called Energy Conversion Systems: From Materials to Devices, which collaborates with the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan. The 24 doctoral researchers, 12 in each country, along with 24 principal investigators are working on 12 different projects in the area of vibrational energy harvesters and photovoltaics using so-called photo-electro-mechanical materials that are simultaneously sensitive to light as well as electrical and mechanical stimuli.

They want to be able to use one type of material class, called a perovskite material, to generate and control different types of energy, such as simultaneously harvesting light and vibrational energy in one material. Developing these conversion systems, Webber notes, is one of the areas they are working in that seems very applicable to modern life, as “multimodal energy harvesting can increase the energy generation capabilities.”

On the topic AI—artificial intelligence—Webber notes that the institute is using the technology in the development of ceramic materials with a high throughput ceramics synthesis system, which features a robot to dispense ceramic powders and another that automates characterization of the crystal structure. They have also tried to accelerate “every single step” of the process so that the lab can produce up to a 100 samples a day, using commercially available solutions where possible and developing their own where necessary. Webber notes that the hands-on training at Maine Maritime Academy continues to help him in research, as designing and making his own measurement equipment has always been an important part of his research.

While recognizing some of the dangers of AI, Webber also envisions “incredible advances” using it in materials research. That said, there currently aren’t enough experimental data points available to rely on or use AI for most of his materials development. The only way to get this data is to create it, which is why he is developing a high throughput synthesis platform. Working on ways to collect large amounts of controlled data points is part of the focus—which could then be used through AI technologies.

“Research is not just theoretical,” Webber notes, pointing to a lot of practical, hands-on, application-oriented R & D. Harking back to his days at MMA, he wants his students and fellow researchers to know how to take apart the equipment they use and put it back together. To that end, he created a little corner of the lab where he has a drill press and all the tools necessary for DIY—a way to challenge the “white tower” image of research. “There are different research fields,” Webber notes, “and many of them are not purely theoretical, but require the practical experience that MMA offers.”

Webber working on a project measuring the fracture toughness of Antarctic glacial ice. Ice, being a polycrystalline material, made this research relatable to the work Webber was involved with in Darmstadt on the fracture mechanics of ceramics due to similar concepts.

If Webber had a magic wand, he would have an autonomous laboratory where you could push a few buttons and a machine would then perform the synthesis and characterization, which would free up researchers to do more analysis.

One of the big issues, Webber notes, is energy, specifically its generation, storage and transmission. “If you could create a ceramic material that could provide energy densities similar to a lithium-ion battery,” he believes, “you would solve many problems.” To achieve this, his team has been working on developing high-energy-density ceramic capacitors, including developing a new class of two-dimensional halide perovskite anti-ferroelectric materials using data-driven machine-learning methods.

Before signing off from the Zoom interview, Webber turns his camera to show his office. On the wall next to his desk, alongside some of his kids’ artwork, hang his framed (and now expired) Coast Guard license and the shellback certificate marking his crossing of the equator. Far from his home state and his alma mater, Webber is reminded every day of his Castine days and the education that set him on his way.

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