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Robert Duncan: From Scrubbing Smokestacks to Superfluids in Space

A 1978 Westinghouse finalist studied physics, and now administers research at his home state's university
superfluids, robert duncan, mizzou



courtesy University of Missouri

His finalist year: 1978

His finalist project
: Testing a process to remove sulfur belched from power plants

What led to the project: Growing up in Saint Joseph, Mo., in the 1970s, Robert Duncan was "very fortunate to have supportive, very good teachers," he says. For instance, the science department at Central High School, which he attended, saved up to purchase a gas chromatograph, used to separate and analyze the elements of gases. His chemistry teacher, Bill McLaughlin, helped him brainstorm projects that could use this technology.

They decided to study ways of removing sulfur from smokestack gases, such as the emissions which would come out of the stacks of coal power plants. It turned out that when you passed the stack gases over a column of half-calcined (heated) dolomite, the reaction could help remove the sulfur. Duncan entered his project, "An Investigation Concerning the Use of Half-Calcined Dolomite as an Absorber of Pollutant Hydrogen Sulfide Gas Liberated During Coal Gasification," in the 1978 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.

The effect on his career
: Duncan went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied physics, ultimately earning his PhD in the topic from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1988. After graduation he joined the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories and, in 1996, the faculty of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (U.N.M.). He also did some visiting professor stints at the California Institute of Technology along the way.

All the while, he studied low-temperature physics, and specifically what happens as helium transitions at low temperatures from a liquid to a special quantum state known as a "superfluid," because it flows with no friction.

One of the major thrusts of his research has been studying how this transition would work in space. When you're on Earth, he explains, the pressure gradient due to gravity affects the transition; in space you can observe this phenomenon unmasked by gravitational effects. However, before the experiments could be conducted in orbit, and to Duncan's great disappointment, NASA canceled its program in 2004 in favor of planning a mission to Mars. "There will be questions in physics we'll never answer otherwise," he rues.



In the meantime, Duncan decided to go into academic administration. In 2002 he became the associate dean for research at the U.N.M. College of Arts and Sciences, and then a few years later, when the University of Missouri–Columbia (Mizzou) announced that it was looking for a new vice chancellor for research, he seized the opportunity to move back to the state where he had grown up.

What he's doing now
: Duncan started his new job last fall. "I'm extremely excited by our program here," he says, and by his three goals: He wants Mizzou to gain a large share of the market for the isotope molybdenum 99, used in many medical procedures. (The university currently sells other radioisotopes to the pharmaceutical industry, and he thinks they could get into the molybdenum 99 market.) He also wants to build a program in translational medicine—the application of basic science to medical products and services—as well as create collaborations between the veterinary and medical schools to advance health care for humans and animals.

"I'm not in any way less enthused about my own physics," Duncan notes, but he thinks these are areas where the University of Missouri can be distinctive and interact more with the commercial markets.

An interest in such broad collaborations and the ability to communicate both with academics and private sector players is why he was selected for the job, says Mizzou Chancellor Brady Deaton, who helped hire Duncan. "He could take the most theoretical concept and very quickly get down to the practical implications of it," he says. "That was very impressive to us."

That ability is also earning him some calls from various media outlets. Recently, Duncan was interviewed by CBS's 60 Minutes for an April 19th segment on cold fusion—that widely debated but so far elusive low-temperature physics concept that's back in the news again.

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