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by Amy Sitze
Late one night in October 1969, a series of experiments to produce a cheaper plumber's tape were leading nowhere. Everything Robert Gore, '63 Ph.D., knew about a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) fiber—which was a lot, considering his company, W.L. Gore and Associates, manufactured and sold PTFE cables—told him that slow, careful stretching would prevent it from breaking. But it kept breaking no matter how slowly he stretched it.
"So I thought, 'I'm going to give it a quick jerk,' and I did, and it stretched about 20-fold," Gore recalls. "It ended up being the combination of using the right basic material and very high temperatures and doing very fast stretching, which is the opposite of what usually happens. Usually when you stretch things fast, they break, and when you stretch things slowly, they stretch well."
In another example of getting the opposite of what you expect, the experiment eventually led not to a cheaper plumber's tape, but to a breathable, waterproof fabric called Gore-Tex that's far from cheap—though worth every penny to anyone who's ever been trapped in a downpour on a camping trip.
More than four decades later, Gore and his wife, Jane, are nurturing the same hands-on approach to science at his alma mater that led to his signature discovery. Their recent gift of $10 million to the College of Science and Engineering to expand Amundson Hall—home of the U's top-ranked Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science—will help create an atmosphere that encourages such experimentation. The 40,000-square-foot Gore Annex will include increased lab space, collaborative environments, and state-of-the-art materials testing equipment for both graduate and undergraduate students.
The donation brings private funding for the $27.6 million project to $15 million, an amount that includes $5 million from Dow Chemical Co. Construction begins in early 2013 and is scheduled to be done by the middle of 2014, allowing the department to hire more faculty, raise graduate admissions by about 10 students per year, and increase the undergraduate class from 120 to about 200 students.
"Our undergraduate class is just bursting at the seams," says Frank Bates, chair of the department. "We've traditionally had heavy demand for chemical engineering, and now materials science, one of the newest fields in engineering, is really growing."
That growth is partly due to excellent job opportunities, he says. Graduates go into fields as diverse as energy research, semiconductor processing, and biochemical and biomedical engineering at international companies such as Medtronic, Intel, Exxon Mobil, and Cargill. "In the last 10 years I can't remember a Ph.D. student coming out of our department who has not had more than one offer for employment," says Bates. "The demand from companies to hire our students is extraordinary."
For Gore, giving back to the program that contributed so much to his own career is "high on my list of good and important things to do." He was raised in a family of entrepreneurs and scientists and was already a skilled chemist as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, but he says his graduate work at the U of M stretched his skills to the next level.
"It ended up being the combination of using the right basic material and very high temperatures and doing very fast stretching, which is the opposite of what usually happens. Usually when you stretch things fast, they break, and when you stretch things slowly, they stretch well."
–Robert Gore, on the invention of Gore-Tex
His professors were at the top of their field nationally, doing groundbreaking research. "You're often learning what others have already done; you don't always get to work at the forefront where things are not known," Gore says.
Though he appreciates the contributions of colleagues who create mathematical models to predict scientific results, his heart has always been in the physical, hands-on, do- it-yourself world of materials science—the same type of research that would later lead to the invention of Gore-Tex. At the U, he fondly remembers stopping by the machine shop to talk to a talented machinist who would quickly build and set up the equipment he needed to do specific experiments.
He never forgot those lessons during a successful career at W.L. Gore and Associates, the family business founded in his parents' basement in 1958. The company, which now has worldwide sales of $3 billion, with more than 9,500 employees in 30 countries, is known for both the innovative products it produces and its egalitarian, non-hierarchical culture in which the word "boss" doesn't exist (the person who supervises your work is known as a "sponsor").
"It's what you know and what you can do that matters," says Gore. "My Ph.D. doesn't qualify me to know everything. I'm only good where I'm good, and there are experts in all sorts of other areas—some of them in the machine shop, as I learned at the University of Minnesota."
It's hard to predict which young expert educated in the expanded Amundson Hall will be the next to produce a scientific breakthrough like Gore-Tex, or how many young minds will be shaped by what they learn there. But one outcome is a sure bet: the spirit of innovation enabled by the Gores' gift will be felt in the halls and labs of the new building for generations to come.
Amy Sitze is editor of Legacy.