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Jim Caruthers

Professor of Chemical Engineering

Chemical Engineer is a driving force on the road to electric vehicle future

In the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman was given one word of advice concerning his future — “plastics.” Jim Caruthers applied that sage wisdom to “polymers” instead , and has forged a career that is helping lead the auto industry to a more sustainable future.

A professor of chemical engineering, Caruthers has dedicated much of his career to understanding the mechanics of polymers, be they rubbery or rigid, hard or soft, brittle or malleable. Precisely why they bend, break, deform and stretch — knowledge that is leading to more efficient and effective use of polymers for a variety of engineering applications.

“Polymers are probably the largest class of engineering materials used today,” says Caruthers, who joined the Purdue faculty in 1977. “As an example, the increasing fuel efficiency of cars over the past few decades is due in part to weight reductions made possible by replacing metals with polymers.”

Caruthers’ group has recently begun a second research focus on batteries, which is an important area in emerging electric vehicle technology. The work includes developing sensors to monitor battery performance and safety, and understanding the flow behavior of “highly filled particulate fluids” used to create the energy storage components of the battery.

The particulate filled fluids can be likened to wet sand, except that the particles are much smaller than grains of sand. When the fluid evaporates, a solid surface remains. The performance and reliability of a battery depends upon the microstructure that develops in the resulting solid, which depends upon mixing, fluid flow and drying of these particulate filled fluids.

Caruthers also leads the electric vehicles initiative at Purdue. He is the director of the Indiana Advanced Electric Vehicle Training and Education Consortium (I-AEVtec), a partnership between the College of Engineering and the College of Technology created to educate a new generation of highly skilled workers to design, build and service electric vehicles, and devise the infrastructure needed to support these vehicles.

The consortium of Indiana colleges and universities is working to develop degree and training programs for the emerging electric vehicle industry, including students in both traditional engineering and technology degree programs. It also focuses on engineers and technologists currently in the Indiana workforce.

As part of the I-AEVtec program, Caruthers and his team developed in 2010 the nation’s first Electric Vehicle Grand Prix. This year’s eVGrandPrix features two races: The first will take place April 30 on the Purdue Grand Prix track. The second, on May 7, is a national collegiate competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; time trials are on May 6.

Youthful wonder: Caruthers is right where he needs to be — at the intersection of education and discovery. He is inspired, he says, by “curiosity and the opportunity to interact with young people.”

Driven to inspire technical solutions: One of the objectives for this academic is getting students charged up about careers in engineering and technology. “I hope the work we are doing will excite young people and encourage them to look for important technical solutions,” he says.

Win some, lose some: Progress, to Caruthers, involves idling, revving, and sometimes going in reverse. “Most days, you work hard to find out that you know less about a problem than you thought you did,” he says. “Occasionally, there are days when you actually know more at the end of the day than when you started. These are the days you savor.”

Handing over the wheel: “I get some very good students who do well both when they arrive and after they leave. I am privileged to have been a part of their careers,” Caruthers says. Sometimes, though, the most rewarding moments as a professor come from small victories. “In many ways, the most satisfying aspect of my job is to take students who wouldn’t naturally have been at the top of the class, but with some help, nurturing and encouragement, end up being very strong students,” he says. “You see a dramatic difference in both their performance and self-confidence when they leave, and you know you have had a real impact on their future success.”

By Emil Venere
Photos by: Mark Simons