Carnegie Mellon Engineering

Richard J. Fruehan to retire after 50 years in metallurgical research

Richard J. Fruehan to retire after 50 years in metallurgical research

Since 1980, Richard J. Fruehan has taught hundreds of Carnegie Mellon University students the fundamentals of metallurgical and materials science. He is known for decades of accomplishments in the materials science field, including his metal production research and the founding of CMU’s Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research (CISR). Throughout his career, Fruehan was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and recognized as an honorary member of the metallurgical societies of the United States, France, China, and Japan.

Fruehan said he discovered his passion for metallurgy because of his interest in the fundamental sciences.  

“I realized I liked the fundamental sciences like chemistry and physics, and the engineering field that had the strongest chemistry and physics components was materials and metallurgical engineering. Many materials people are interested in improving the performance of the materials. My interests lie mostly in the production of the materials.”

Fruehan earned his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in metallurgical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout his undergraduate and graduate career, he conducted research with his academic adviser G. R. Belton, pioneering the use of the mass spectrometer to investigate the thermodynamics of liquid metal alloys. Their efforts did not go unnoticed—the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers formally recognized the duo by awarding them the Robert W. Hunt medal for their tremendous accomplishments and steadfast commitment to the steel industry.

After completing his Ph.D. degree in 1966, Fruehan applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Fellowship to acquire more knowledge and training before forging his own career path in the steel industry.

“If you receive one of those [NSF Fellowships], you can go to any high caliber research organization in the world. And I chose to go to Imperial College.”

At Imperial College London, Fruehan worked alongside “one of the giants in the field—a professor called F. D. Richardson.” Fruehan and Richardson worked together on two primary projects: measuring the thermodynamics of oxygen in liquid copper and developing a probe that would measure the oxygen content of liquid copper using electro-chemical techniques.

Richard J. Fruehan, Ph.D.Fruehan happily reflected upon his time as a postdoctoral fellow at Imperial College, defining the growth he experienced.

“For any one single year of my career, that was the most fruitful because I accomplished more in one year scientifically and culturally than I did in any other single year. … We had the opportunity to travel all over England, going to other universities and just plain old sight-seeing. And when it was over, the three of us—my wife, my four-year-old son and myself—spent 10 weeks camping in Europe. It was a wonderful time.”

After completing his postdoctoral fellowship, Fruehan returned to the United States to begin his 12-year career with the United States Steel Corporation, the largest integrated steel producer headquartered in the United States. As a scientist and research consultant for the US Steel Corporation (known as US Steel), Fruehan worked in a small group called the Fundamental Research Laboratory, performing research similar to the academic research he would conduct at Carnegie Mellon.

For his first major research project at US Steel, Fruehan used the knowledge he acquired at Imperial College to develop another probe for oxygen in steel. Fruehan received several patents for this invention along with the Industrial Research 100 Award for one of the best inventions of the year.

Following his career at US Steel, Fruehan accepted a teaching job at Carnegie Mellon.

“A friend of mine told the department head of Carnegie Mellon that I might be interested in going there. I was extremely impressed with the efficiency and the lab decision-making. I did my interview, got an offer, and started work within a month. When I saw the opportunities at Carnegie Mellon, I decided that that was where I was going to go.”

For the past 36 years, Fruehan has shared his vast knowledge with hundreds of students eager to learn about metallurgy and materials science. Despite his years of research, dozens of published papers, numerous patents and awards, Fruehan considers the CISR his most long-lasting contribution to Carnegie Mellon and the steel industry. 

“At the time that I came to Carnegie Mellon, the large steel companies like US Steel and Bethlehem Steel were all downsizing their research laboratories, doing away with basic academic research. But they knew they needed it, so I came up with the concept of having them join a center in which they would give financial resources to and we would do basic, long-term research for all the steel companies and share the results with them.”

In 1985, Fruehan established the CISR, now one of the largest research centers in the United States dedicated to education and research related to the iron and steelmaking industry. At its inception, the CISR received funding from 10 steel companies in the United States, but as time progressed, it gained international support as well—at one point, the CISR collaborated with 25 international steel companies. Initially, Fruehan received funding from the NSF, but for the past 25 years, the CISR has been completely self-sufficient.

When asked to reflect upon his expansive career as a researcher, scientist, university professor, and co-director of the CISR, Fruehan highlighted the time he spent working with his students. During his time at CMU, Fruehan has mentored and advised more than 40 Ph.D. students and 20 master's students.

“Without a doubt, when I look back at my career … my greatest accomplishments are the students that I have worked with, all of which I consider to be really, really high caliber people. When they first came to work on the project with me, they had little or no knowledge of that project. Three or four years later, they were teaching me. They knew more than I did on that subject, and it’s a testament of the students—the ones we attract at Carnegie Mellon. If they’re given the opportunity, they will really prosper.”

Following his retirement, Fruehan hopes to become an emeritus professor and continue mentoring the highest graduate students in the materials science and engineering department.

“Beyond that, I’m going to play a lot of tennis.”

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