The non-profit Inamori Foundation has announced that Dr John W. Cahn will receive its 27th annual Kyoto Prize in Advanced Technology, which focuses on Materials Science and Engineering for 2011. Dr Cahn, 83, a citizen of the United States, will receive the award for his outstanding contributions to alloy materials engineering through his establishment of the theory of spinodal decomposition. He currently serves as Emeritus Senior Fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and as an affiliate professor at University of Washington.

Technology is often limited by materials. In renewable energy, computing, robotics, medicine, transportation, and countless other fields, a more capable material is often the missing piece separating today’s research from tomorrow’s breakthrough application. This challenge is often overcome by combining one element with another to yield an alloy material with superior structural or functional properties.
As a young researcher in the 1950s, Dr Cahn was frustrated by the failures of prevailing theory to support a more systematic approach to materials development. At that time, researchers attempting to maximize the potential of alloy materials were forced to take a trial-and-error approach. Dr Cahn collaborated with Dr John Hilliard, a colleague at General Electric, in developing a method to describe the process of phase separation. Since its publication in 1961, the Cahn-Hilliard equation has played a key role in materials science and engineering, explaining phenomena as simple as the formation of frost patterns on a car’s windshield, and as complex as the clumping of galaxies in the early universe.
Dr. Cahn subsequently established his theory of three-dimensional spinodal decomposition by extending the one-dimensional theory formulated by Dr Mats Hillert in 1961.
In addition to expanding Hillert’s theoretical treatment into three dimensions, he incorporated an elastic strain-energy term, allowing alloy materials to be engineered for highly specific structural and functional characteristics. This theory has since found universal application in the design and production of better-performing metals, glass, semiconductors, polymers, and thermal materials requiring unique properties; including extreme strength, thermal conductivity, pore permeability, heat resistance, and magnetism. Dr Cahn’s research findings have also laid the foundation for the phase-field method, one of the hottest research topics of recent years in the materials sciences. Taken as a whole, his work has spawned productive lines of research not only in metallurgy but also in physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, economics and demography.
This story is reprinted from material from the Kyoto Prize Website, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier.