Materials lab dedicated to research pioneer Colt Pears

November 29, 2016

Southern Research dedicated the materials evaluation facility at its Engineering Center to Coultas “Colt” Pears, an innovator whose pioneering high-temperature materials research aided the nation’s space program and critical defense systems.

Pears, whose inventions included a furnace capable of reaching 6,500 degrees Fahrenheit for testing spacecraft heat shields and rocket nose-tips, and his team made significant contributions to the science of evaluating how materials behave in extreme conditions.

Beginning in the late 1950s, their work established Southern Research as a key center for high-temperature materials analysis for NASA, the Department of Defense and major aerospace companies. Laboratories at Southern Research are still performing these tests today.

Southern Research Colt Pears
The Colt Pears family poses with a portrait of the researcher at a dedication ceremony for the laboratory named for Pears.

“These labs were built, and still operate to this day, around the fundamental principles that Colt Pears instilled in each and every engineer at Southern Research,” said Michael D. Johns, the organization’s vice president of Engineering.

“It is only fitting that the labs are named after him to memorialize his contributions,” he added.

Southern Research leadership participated Monday in a dedication ceremony for the Pears labs at the Engineering Research Center, which Pears himself helped design. Johns escorted Pears family members on a tour of the Birmingham facility, where they witnessed the legacy of his work in materials evaluation.

During the ceremony, Johns unveiled a portrait of Pears, which was flanked by awards from the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame for his contributions to research in the field.


Pears joined Southern Research in 1957 after directing coal gasification research for the U.S. Bureau of Mines in West Virginia and heading an underground coal gasification project for Alabama Power Co.

At Southern Research, Pears earned a reputation as a visionary leader in high-temperature materials research. His team of engineers and scientists devised novel methods and processes for understanding how complex advanced materials performed in conditions similar to deep space and fiery atmospheric re-entry.

Pears’ labs made Southern Research one of the few organizations in the world where the thermal and mechanical properties of materials are routinely studied at temperatures reaching into thousands of degrees, according to the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.

Pears’ engineering team made important contributions to NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, providing vital data in high-temperature materials characterization, macrostructural modeling, and failure analysis.

The team’s work also extended to automobile engineering, pollution control, and power generation.


Southern Research Colt Pears lab
Engineering VP Michael Johns shows the Pears family testing equipment in the Southern Research lab dedicated to Colt Pears.

In addition, Pears earned individual recognition for advances in the field.

In 1964, the American Society for Testing and Materials recognized his gas-bearing tensile-stress-strain apparatus as the year’s most significant contribution to testing. The technology is still being used today at Southern Research.

The furnace capable of testing materials at record-breaking temperatures earned a spot among Industrial Research magazine’s top 100 inventions in 1963.

Pears was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2006, with the organization citing his role in developing cutting-edge evaluation technologies and techniques that benefited the nation’s space and defense programs. Southern Research has been named to the Engineering Hall of Fame, as has the high-temperature materials facility led by Pears.

Pears served as vice president of Engineering from 1967 until his retirement in 1993, when he was named a Distinguished Engineer and began acting as a consultant to the organization. He died in 2011.

“Mr. Pears’ legacy has continued at Southern Research, and the groundwork that he laid for the Engineering Division has allowed it to be a leader in high-temperature materials research and other areas to this day,” Johns said.

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