FM&T Hall of Honor 2011: Researching, Understanding Applying

Sept. 7, 2011
From mold-gas emissions and lost foam casting to NDT and protective fabrics, the 2011 honoree has been effective at converting metalcasting research into successful practice.

Dr. Charles Bates is inconclusive when asked what guided him into a metalcasting career that has been both academically and commercially successful, one that’s now in its fifth decade and continuing with spirited enthusiasm. He can identify some contributing factors, but his focus i on researching more practical issues. In a rambling style Bates lists a range of circumstances and experiences, all of which shaped his development as a “research professor” — and one worthy now of recognition in the FM&T Hall of Honor for the results and influence of his work.

What emerges is the tale of a fully developed metalcasting career, with experiences in production, academic programs, and practical research. He’s gained expertise in casting aluminum, steel, and iron, and he’s been exposed to the range of foundry processes and production methods. Dr. Bates calls what he does “applied research,” in a way that makes it clear how much value he places on actionable results.

Bates was born in Shelby, AL, a small mining community that once thrived as a source of iron for cannons and ship plates in the Civil War era, but those details had no influence on his future plans. As a student at the University of Alabama he began to focus on engineering, first chemical engineering, then metallurgical engineering, a choice that directed him to a co-op position with the James B. Clow Co. in Birmingham. “I coop’ed for two years in the iron foundry,” he recalled, “running basic quality control tests, wet chemical analyses, … breaking tensile tests, breaking transverse bars, just generally running around the plant and picking up samples, and bringing them back to the lab and checking consistency.”

While still an undergraduate, Bates landed a position at Ford Motor Co. in Sheffield, AL, then the world’s largest
aluminum foundry. Once he’d earned a B.S. in Metallurgical Engineering and decided to pursue graduate studies in metalcasting, a Ford supervisor suggested the program at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. There, working with the renowned professor Jack Wallace, Bates got “deeper and deeper into foundry metallurgy.

“At Case I spent a couple of years working on mold-wall stability, mold-wall movement, steel-casting quality, … primarily with steel,” Bates explained. “And then, I switched over and got an iron project that dealt with trace element effects, pearlite stabilization, nodule degradation, flake degradation, mostly caused by various tramp elements – antimony, tin, arsenic, those kinds of things — and how you could neutralize them, if at all you could.”

He earned two more degrees at Case and learned the research methods that have been the basis of his work. But, understanding metallurgy is only part of the skill of applied research. “I have always enjoyed going into operations and trying to figure out what the root problem was, not just the manifestation of the problem,” Dr. Bates reflected, “and solving it. That’s been my pleasure all through the years.”

Applying the Research

The next stage of Dr. Bates’ career saw him enhance his skill in the practical aspects of research. Having completed M.S. and Ph.D. programs in Metallurgy at Case, he joined the Southern Research Institute, a not-for-profit research center in Birmingham that conducts basic and applied research for commercial and non-commercial organizations. Over 25 years, many of those as head of the Metals Section at SRI, he was involved in research into high-temperature material property measurement capability, and material evaluation for ballistic reentry, “which none of my foundry friends had any interest in,” he noted. But, in addition, while at SRI he and his colleagues conducted their initial research into mold-gas emissions, as well as gas volumes and gas compositions, and the effects of binders on surface quality of castings. “One of our papers is still the classic in binder decomposition,” he said recently.

“I was at SRI for 25 years,” he recalled, “and I thought I’d like to try something else.” An open position for a “research professor” at the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s School of Engineering seemed to be a promising next step. But, a research professor has no tenure, and while Bates conducted some coursework at UAB the position demanded that he support the cost of the research program by attracting industrial and commercial partnerships. And so, he did.

While at SRI in the early 1990s Bates had launched the Lost Foam Consortium, a program with about 20 participants (including the U.S. Dept. of Energy) that conducted critical research into that still-emerging metalcasting process. He relocated that program and certain equipment to UAB, making the university a new center for metalcasting R&D. “He turned UAB into a leader. People came from across the country to solve their casting problems,” according to Barry Andrews, Ph.D., chairman of Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering.

Dr. Bates is quick to share credit for the Lost Foam Consortium’s success with two colleagues, John Griffin and Harry Litttleton. “This facility was instrumental in increasing the understanding of metal filling in open and full mold castings,” Littleton said of the UAB lab.

Another important area of research for the UAB program involved casting machinability. “The president of Grede Foundries told me that one thing they could never understand was why one batch of castings would machine just fine and the next wouldn’t,” he said. “So, we got a consortium going with quite a number of companies to determine what it is that influences machinability

“At one time I suppose I had 10 graduate students working on different aspects of lost foam casting and machinability,” he continued. “The machinability work led into non-destructive testing research, and we developed a pretty good technique for shooting ultrasonic signals through gray iron, … and we could pretty well predict how machinable it would be.”

Bates and his colleagues at UAB also conducted some invaluable studies to evaluate protective garments. “We set up and continually updated an apparatus where we could dump a controlled amount of metal onto a fabric, and had heat sensors behind it, and we could tell how much heat was coming through the fabric to potentially burn somebody.” It confirmed the effectiveness of some significant, though proprietary improvements in protective fabrics.

The Work Continues

Though he retired from UAB in 2007, Dr. Bates continues to work in collaborative research through a company he founded, AlchemCast LLC. “I have a knack for talking with people, I think, and I love to talk to people down on the line who actually have a lot more experience, and have good ideas about what the cause (of a problem) may be,” he detailed. “I don’t mind getting dirty and hot, that’s really how I get to the bottom of an issue. I like to go talk to the line supervisors, the guys who’ve got a high school education, maybe, but have 20 years’ experience running a heat-treat furnace, or whatever it is that he does.”

He has several industrial research projects underway, and Bates’ contributions to metalcasting continue to be impactful. For example, his ongoing work with software developer Flow Science Inc. builds on his research into mold-gas pressure, to develop reliable references for the Flow-3D program for simulating casting flow, fill, and solidification.

“Dr. Bates has made numerous contributions to the field of metalcasting technology,” according to Andrei Starobin, an independent casting modeling engineer now leading an AFS research project in which Dr. Bates is participating. He cited Bates’ research into the “atmosphere and metal-mold interface conditions in iron castings during pouring,” and “the gas pressure in cores and molds, and its role in formation of gas blow defects in castings.”

Indeed, Bates’ own published record is a reliable guide to metalcasting research over recent decades, with over 200 credits or co-credits on papers, chapters, and books, covering topics in the casting of steel and iron, lost foam casting, molding sands and binders, solidification, heat treating, foundry emissions and safety, material evaluation, and defects in castings. He has earned numerous recognitions and awards, including the AFS Hall-Heroult Award for Scientific Merit, and the AFS Joseph S. Seaman Gold Medal for contributions to the science and technology of metalcasting. These awards only suggest the wide variety of honors, appointments, and other special recognitions for Dr. Bates’ achievements.

Starobin also credited Dr. Bates for guiding the research of numerous students at UAB, who have since made their own contributions as foundry engineers.

But, it is the totality of his work that earns Dr. Charles E. Bates a place in the FM&T Hall of Honor. His facility for pursuing ideas, for coordinating all available resources and insights, and for driving that research into the commercial realm, is a singular example in metalcasting. He has worked to make the academic world a practical place, and he has elevated the industry with a deeper understanding of its own processes and potential.