Test methods developed by Lawrence Broutman helped foster a new world of plastics in civil engineering applications like underground fuel-storage tanks, bridges and pipe — through his research and early use of impact tests and scanning electron microscopes.
The founder of L.J. Broutman & Associates Ltd. won the prestigious International Award in 2006 from the Society of Plastics Engineers. He was SPE president for the 1977-78 term. This week in Orlando, Fla., Broutman, 74, goes into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
In the 1960s, Broutman became an expert on structural applications for fiber-reinforced plastics, which then was a brand-new area. He was at the right place for that field — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which had a construction engineering department that broke new ground on plastics and composites.
One of his professors, Albert Dietz, led the department when Monsanto Co. picked MIT to design the House of the Future, built at Disneyland in 1957. Though Broutman was not directly involved with that project — he got his bachelor's degree in civil engineering two years later — he recalls the heady times.
“It greatly influenced me to say, ‘Wow this was exciting.' “
Broutman went on to get his master's and doctorate degrees from MIT in materials engineering and science. While a graduate student, he helped design a backyard bomb shelter made of reinforced composites. That Cold War project led to standards for underground gasoline-storage tanks, he said.
His first research publication was based on his master's thesis: the interface strength between a single fiber and the polymer matrix. Early on, this became his central focus.
“What was critical to make glass-reinforced plastics work was the bonding between the glass and the plastic,” he said.
The quality of the bond, or interface, impacts the long-term durability of the structural part.
Broutman's research methods played an important role in developing body armor, household appliances and wind turbines.
For his doctoral thesis, he developed a method for determining the fracture toughness of various polymers. Scientists around the world have used his methods. He also was an early researcher to use impact testing, building an early impact instrument to test glass and graphite laminates.
Broutman said his college training in all materials — including metals and ceramics, as well as thermoplastics and thermosets, helped him keep an open mind. He pioneered cold-forming, which applied metalworking like cold-rolling, deep drawing and forging to thermoplastics and thermoplastic laminates. Other research included study of how molded-in stresses can cause stress cracking or reduce impact toughness. In the 1980s and 1990s, Broutman turned to plastic pipe, leading fundamental research that developed test methods to measure long-term mechanical stability.
Broutman has written 158 technical papers, edited nine reference books and co-authored two textbooks. He holds four patents.
He was a professor of mechanics and materials engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago from the mid-1960s through 1982, when he became a research professor. That same year, he started L.J. Broutman & Associates, a materials consulting and testing firm focusing on polymers, in Melrose, Ill., that was dedicated to polymers.
“We were unique in that we provided a pretty wide range of services, internationally, to manufacturers and material suppliers,” he said.
He sold Broutman & Associates in 1998 to Bodycote International plc, and stayed for a few years as chairman and CEO of Bodycote Broutman Inc. He was an investor and adviser in Advanced Polymer Compounding, a thermoplastic elastomer maker and compounder in Carpentersville, Ill., that began in 1987 and was sold to Ferro Corp. in 1999.
Broutman was nominated to the Plastics Hall of Fame by Stan Jakopin, the founder and president of Advanced Polymer Compounding. He met Broutman in 1969, when he took an SPE course on cold-forming that Broutman taught.
“He's a very nice person, very easygoing, obviously quite knowledgeable in his field,” Jakopin said.
Broutman is knowledgeable in another field as well. An accomplished photographer, his interest in capturing people of different cultures in images, and the natural landscapes of their lives, has taken him to Africa, Southeast Asia, North and South America and Europe.