WPI Grad Wins 'Nobel Prize' of Applied Research

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE/September 21, 1999
Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

Even though all his hard work is a washout, John L. Lombardi, WPI class of 1990, is all smiles.

Lombardi has won what's called the "Nobel Prize" of applied research, the R&D 100 award, for an invention called Aqua-Port, a non-toxic polymer blend that supports other materials such as plastics or ceramics during the manufacturing process. The award will be presented Sept. 23 by R&D Magazine, less than a year after Aqua-Port was developed.

Lombardi, of Tucson, Ariz., a native of Worcester, Mass., and graduate of Doherty High School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is the son of Robert and Jacqueline Lombardi of Worcester. He is also the senior research scientist at Advanced Ceramics Research, a relatively small company in Tucson. The 1999 R&D award is heady stuff, putting the company in a category with previous winners such as Corning, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, national research labs and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

R&D Magazine gives the award each year to the top 100 new products. Previous award winners include the automated-teller machine, digital wristwatch, photocopier, touch-sensitive screen, Nicoderm anti-smoking patch and the anti-cancer drug Taxol.

Aqua-Port, a support material, allows manufacturers to make parts that have never been made before, using a burgeoning technology called rapid prototyping (RP). In comparison to conventional subtractive manufacturing processes, which cut parts from bulk feedstock, RP processes build parts in a series of layers stacked one upon another until the final part results.

Aqua-Port speeds up the manufacturing process and reduces assembly steps. Once the part is complete, the supporting, non-toxic Aqua-Port can simply be dissolved in water, saving time and possible breakage. It can be used to manufacture anything from an intricate chess piece to an interconnected gear assembly.

In addition, it is unique because of its high thermal stability: It can withstand temperatures of more than 550 degrees F.

"It opens up a whole new way of manufacturing," Lombardi said. "Most water soluble polymers don't exhibit high thermal stability and cannot be used in most RP processes."

Here's how R&D Magazine described Lombardi's award winner:

"Polymer rapid prototyping (RP) is easier and faster with Aqua-Port, developed by John Lombardi and Gregory Artz at Advanced Ceramics Research Inc., Tucson, Ariz. RP usually produces a stack of thin, discrete polymer layers that require support materials to prevent slumping during fabrication. Aqua-Port is such a support material. However, unlike typical materials that need to be removed by melting or machining, Aqua-Port can be washed away with room-temperature water... Aqua-Port enables RP to be used in making more complex prototypes, because of its easy removal from configurations such as channels or from fragile features."

Lombardi notes that Aqua-Port says time and trouble in the manufacturing process.

"Instead of labor intensive work, it's a new polymer blend that has all these essential properties and that can then be just washed from the part," he said. "All you need is a bucket of tap water, and 10 to 15 minutes later, you are done."

In addition to co-developer and senior research technician Gregory Artz, Lombardi had help from his former doctoral advisor, Professor Paul Calvert, who specializes in materials science and engineering at the University of Arizona. Lombardi, who is an adjunct research professor and earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Arizona, also credits the university's graduate students, a collaboration that reminded Lombardi of his WPI experience.

"WPI lets students see the broad spectrum of technology and its societal impact, and this invention follows that lead," he said. "With the help from our graduate students, I was reminded of that WPI interdisciplinary aspect of how to define problems as well as being resourceful in their solution. That was an important part of what I learned at WPI."

The results aren't bad, either.

"Compared to many R&D projects, we were able to come up with a product with industrial significance," Lombardi said.

Funding for the invention came from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible developing for "the really high-end defense research, technology that is critical to the future and defense of the United States," Lombardi said.

In an interesting twist, the person responsible for granting the funding is WPI alumnus William S. Coblenz (class of 1970), an old friend of Lombardi who became a program monitor at DARPA.

"After WPI, I worked for Norton Co. (of Worcester) and I met Dr. Coblenz there," Lombardi recalls. "He was one of the research scientists who eventually left and went to DARPA."

The R&D award is an outstanding achievement for Lombardi as well as his company. With $6 million in annual sales and about 40 employees, Advanced Ceramics Research has grown in the three years Lombardi has worked there.

"When I began here I was one of five employees," Lombardi said.

In addition to this award, Lombardi garnered a 1996 Inventor Award from NASA, a 1995 Graduate Student Research Award from the Materials Research Society and fellowships from NASA Science Engineering and Courtaulds Research.

Aqua-Port has a bright future. Apparently, so do Lombardi and Advanced Ceramics Research.

"Now we've licensed this technology off to a major rapid prototyping equipment manufacturer," he said. "These machines are used by all the major auto makers, for example, for the fabrication of design prototypes."