One of the early Engineering Department projects was a heat pump for the Muncie Gear Works.
Southern Research engineers designed the plumbing system for the heat pump patented by Muncie. The patent, issued in 1949, named Emory Kemler, director of the Engineering Department at Southern Research, as co-inventor.
Engineers installed a test model in the home of a Homewood family to gather data.
Photo shows Dr. Carl Roger Freberg of Southern Research demonstrating the model heat pump, circa 1948.
“Colt” Pears had previously carried out high-temperature goal gasification work for the Bureau of Mines. His ambition was to create a world-class high-temperature materials characterization laboratory. The lab’s innovations included the development of a facility that could make accurate measurements of loads on brittle high-temperature metals and optical strain measurement techniques.
The first known measurements of tensile properties at 6,000-degrees Fahrenheit took place at Southern Research, and extreme-temperature testing and analysis became a core competency of the organization. In 1964, the American Society for Testing and Materials recognized the gas-bearing tensile-stress-strain apparatus developed by Pears as the year’s most significant contribution to testing.
Under Pear’s leadership, the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department targeted work involving U.S. aerospace needs, including high-temperature technology and characterization, macrostructural modeling, failure analysis, and core technology of materials.
Pears is a member of the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.
Engineers exposed materials to extreme conditions like those of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, providing data that helped NASA select heat-shield materials. Working with NASA’s Langley Research Center, Southern Research engineers heat-tested materials up to 5,000-degrees Fahrenheit.
Southern Research also designed radiometers that provided temperature measurements on the moon’s surface, which factored into landing site decisions.
Around the time of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, Southern Research established onsite laboratory operations at Kennedy Space Center to support contractors involved in the launches. Chemist Ruby James, an expert in gas chromatography, ran the program for two years.
Southern Research began working on an air pollution control device called an electrostatic precipitator in 1968, earning the organization an international reputation in the field.
In a power plant, an electrostatic precipitator removes dust particles from exhaust by applying a high-voltage electrostatic charge and collecting the particles on charged plates. The work of Sabert Oglesby, then head of Southern Research’s Engineering division, advanced the technology. He later served as president of the International Society of Electrostatic Precipitation and wrote a manual on the technology.
Southern Research’s work in air pollution actually stretches further back. In the 1950s, researchers developed equipment to trap dust in a measured volume of air, as well as a portable device called an aerosol photometer, to count tiny particles in the air. The device had a number of useful applications in air pollution studies and in measuring contamination in areas such as hospital operating rooms, instrument assembly rooms, and a nuclear submarine.
Air pollution work during the 1960s included a program to develop new methods for sampling the atmosphere and concentrating the pollutants for analysis. A copper tube, filled with gas chromatographic column packing, collected the sample, allowing materials in the sample to be identified using a gas chromatograph with a hydrogen flame detector.
Photo shows early air pollution testing in Birmingham
Specimen materials were flex-tested and kept in a special vacuum chamber for weeks at a time to simulate space conditions. Temperatures were lowered to minus-200 degrees Fahrenheit as part of the analysis by the Mechanical Engineering Department.
Five candidate materials survived all the tests.
Voyager launched on Sept. 5, 1977, on a mission that took the space probe past Jupiter, Saturn and Saturn’s moon Titan. It is the only spacecraft now in interstellar space.
Discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency, then in its infancy, led to a contract calling for Southern Research engineers to develop ways to measure fine particles in industrial flue gases. These tiny particles were proving difficult for air pollution control devices to capture.
Southern Research’s pioneering efforts to measure concentrations and size distributions of these minute particles became the basis of a decades-long effort supported by industry and the EPA to improve the performance of particulate-control devices.
Southern Research was involved in several full-scale test programs sponsored by the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Electric Power Research Institute.
Southern Research was involved in many aspects of the Space Shuttle program. The engineering team evaluated ablative materials used to protect the Shuttle from the high thermal loads and the 5,500-degree temperatures generated by its massive solid rocket motors. The team also examined materials for the leading edges of the orbiter, which experienced temperatures ranging from –150 degrees to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit on every flight.
Other Southern Research departments also got involved in the Shuttle program. Analytical chemists conducted tests that identified compounds in charred insulation and steered NASA away from using polyurethane insulating foam with a flame-retardant additive because tests showed it produced toxic fumes when burned.
In addition, chemists and toxicologists determined harmful properties of burned insulation.
The Challenger’s 1983 mission, designated STS-8, seemed to go without a hitch, but a post-flight safety inspection of the solid rocket boosters revealed a problem with the lining of a rocket nozzle. The lining had almost completely burned away in some places, which likely would have led to a catastrophic break-up of the spacecraft.
NASA called in John Koenig’s Southern Research engineering team, which identified why the rocket nozzle had eroded and provided guidance for material design and process changes to prevent the defect. The team also developed a unique laser screening test to ensure there would be no repeat of the problem.
Photo shows John Koenig inspecting a damaged shuttle fuel nozzle
The organization created Southern Research Technologies in 1988 as a subsidiary focusing on its technological developments such as its contributions to the FOG-M (fiber optic guided missile). The concept involved fiber optic cable spooling out of the back of the missile during flight, providing a television picture for the operator. It was the first time a TV camera was placed in the nose of a missile, with images beamed back for guidance.
Southern Research engineers developed a seeker head and a tracker device for the missile system.
By the time Southern Research Technologies was spun off, the organization’s engineers had performed work on missile programs for nearly three decades. In fact, Southern Research engineers Al Thomas and Bob Collins had developed a tracking device for the Maverick missile in 1962, leading to the development of many tracker and seeker systems by the organization.
Photo shows an infared source for aerial low targets developed by Southern Research.
Southern Research’s High Temperature Materials Evaluation Facility was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in February 1991 at a ceremony in Tuscaloosa. The facility is used to evaluate materials such as carbon-carbon composites, graphite and ceramic for use in aircraft, missiles and space vehicles under extreme conditions.
The facility’s furnaces are capable of operating at temperatures reaching 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and mechanical and thermal equipment at the facility determine how materials function under different conditions.
The unique facility made Southern Research the primary source of research in the characterization of high temperature materials for NASA, the Department of Defense, and many aerospace companies and component producers.
Southern Research dedicated its new Engineering Research Center at Birmingham’s Oxmoor Park on Oct. 9, 1992, in front of a crowd that numbered 200 people. Alabama Gov. Guy Hunt, who was one of them, said: “The growth and progress here at Oxmoor bodes well for the future of Birmingham and our entire state.”
At the new center, engineers conducted high-temperature evaluation of carbon-carbon and other advanced composite materials in defense and aerospace applications.
Chandra’s periscope is a critical component of the telescope’s pointing mechanism and goes from the center of the X-ray mirrors to the tracking camera. To function properly, the periscope must remain thermally stable despite temperature changes.
Southern Research developed the thermal stability test for the periscope that determined the pointing accuracy of the X-ray observatory. Several test campaigns helped material and optical designers refine the periscope design.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor of Hubble. Before Northrop Grumman secured the prime contract on the project in 2002, Southern Research’s Nondestructive Characterization Group worked with team members Orbital ATK and others to develop enabling technology for the 6.5- meter space telescope on NASA’s next great observatory.
Novel interferometer-based metrology techniques pioneered at Southern Research were integral to the winning proposal and went on to be used to test over six thousand individual material components for the observatory, in addition to major substructures.
Endeavour was poised to launch from Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center when higher-than-allowable oxygen levels were detected in the orbiter’s midbody. While replacing a fatigued oxygen hose, a platform bumped the robotic arm in the shuttle’s cargo bay.
NASA officials called Southern Research engineers David Stewart and Jim Tucker and asked them to report to Kennedy Space Center the next day and bring Southern Research’s patented UltraSpec ultrasonic inspection equipment to examine the manipulator arm. This technology was uniquely capable of collecting data about the robotic arm’s composite-to-metal interfaces.
Inspection of the arm was made in the cargo bay of Endeavour on the launch pad, and Southern Research’s equipment and personnel were then immediately flown to Toronto to meet with the arm’s manufacturer to evaluate results.
Three days after the call to Southern Research was made, Endeavour was approved for launch and blasted into orbit on Nov. 23, 2002.
Photo shows Jim Tucker, left, and David Stewart inspecting cargo in the shuttle bay of Endeavour using the UltraSpec technology
Columbia was destroyed during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, following a 16-day scientific mission. An investigation showed that hot gases entered a hole in the leading edge on one of Columbia’s wings, destroying critical support structures and causing the spacecraft to break apart.
NASA again called in a Southern Research team led by John Koenig to determine the cause of the mission failure and model the event that caused the initial damage to the wing. The team also evaluated if the age of the carbon composite material enhanced the probability of failure and to develop approaches to repair the shuttle wing in space if similar damage occurred in the future.
Koening was honored by NASA and its space partners at a 2016 ceremony marking his retirement from Southern Research after nearly 40 years.
The Airborne Imaging and Recording System (AIRS) captured video of Discovery’s July 26, 2005, launch from ranges of up to 20 nautical miles. The AIRS units, mounted in the nose of WB-57 aircraft, provided full-motion video of Discovery from lift-off to well beyond booster separation at 146,000 feet.
The system, developed with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, fulfilled a recommendation from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that high-resolution video be taken of shuttle launches so that possible damage could be identified.
The AIRS turrets continue to be used to capture video of rocket launches and by a variety of Southern Research government clients.
Rapid growth in Southern Research’s engineering business prompted the construction of a $5.6 million high-tech laboratory at the organization’s Engineering Research Campus in Birmingham.
The expansion allowed Southern Research to programs in airborne imaging systems, advanced materials,light-weight composite materials, and structural integrity research of large complex systems, such as aerospace vehicles.
Construction of the 19,000-square-foot building with three high-bay labs and two floors of offices was completed in July 2012.
Building on its Alabama Drug Development Alliance and years of close collaboration, Southern Research and UAB launched the AIMTech venture to develop new medical devices to improve healthcare in the U.S. and around the world.
The strategic partnership combines the research and discovery expertise of Southern Research scientists and engineers and UAB biomedical engineers and clinicians. AIMTech seeks to create medical devices across five specializations: cardiology, orthopedics, ophthalmology, rehabilitative engineering, and trauma.
“Partnering with UAB on this initiative allows us to accelerate commercialization of medical technologies, improve healthcare delivery and outcomes, and generate economic development and growth,” Southern Research President and CEO Dr. Art Tipton said. “This is also an opportunity to develop a lucrative business unit that will potentially create a number of new companies and jobs within the rapidly-growing biomedical engineering industry.”
AIMTech seeks to invent the new medical devices, help raise venture capital, establish small medical device companies, and manage the clinical trial and FDA approval processes. Major medical device companies will manufacture and sell the devices.
The Alliance for Innovative Medical Technology, a partnership between Southern Research and UAB, showed off the ResistX treadmill at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual conference in Boston during early summer 2016.
ResistX is a unique force-induced treadmill designed with safety in mind and engineered for use in physical therapy and rehabilitation centers. It is the first treadmill to allow individuals recovering from neurological or physical disorders to exercise in a challenging treadmill environment to improve cardiovascular fitness and lower limb strength.
“ResistX is different from anything on the market, and represents a significant milestone for AIMTech and the physical therapy and rehab communities,” said Dr. Robert Hergenrother, director of AIMTech and Medical Technology Developments at Southern Research.