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Focus on new faculty: Curt Bronkhorst, shedding light on how materials deform and fail

Written By: Adam Malecek


Curt Bronkhorst developed his love of mathematics and physics as an undergraduate engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Now, he’s excited to return to the university as a professor to help prepare the next generation of engineering leaders to address important problems.

Bronkhorst, who joined the Department of Engineering Physics as a full professor in spring 2019, specializes in theoretical and computational mechanics of materials.

“I focus on developing theory to describe the way materials deform,” he says.

He implements his theoretical models in computer code, such as in standard engineering software, to provide simulations of engineered structures.

“My goal is to give engineers better tools through computational simulation to aid in their design and engineering assessment work,” he says. “With these improved tools, engineers wouldn’t have to overdesign structural components to avoid failure—saving material and weight.”

Bronkhorst focuses primarily on metallic materials in his research. It’s an effort that has far-reaching implications for components made of metal, including in vehicles, aircraft and countless other structures.

For practical use, metal needs to be deformed into a desired shape—and this irreversible deformation is known as plasticity. For example, think of a solid, straight piece of metal being bent permanently into a circle.

By studying the physics of plasticity, Bronkhorst aims to learn more about the optimal conditions under which materials will deform without failing.

“Improved understanding in this area will allow us to design new materials for specific applications, and to more rapidly design those new materials using computational tools,” he says.

He is also particularly interested in investigating material damage and failure. “It’s a very complex physical process and we’re still not able to predict very well when and where materials fail, so that’s a large focus area in my work,” he says.

After earning bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and mathematics from UW-Madison, Bronkhorst earned a master’s degree and PhD in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then he worked as a senior research scientist at Weyerhaeuser Company, a timber, land and forest products company in Seattle, Washington, where he researched fibers, composites and material manufacturing processes. After 11 years at Weyerhaeuser, Bronkhorst joined Los Alamos National Laboratory as a scientist. During his 16 years at Los Alamos, he worked on many projects with national security and defense applications and ascended to a senior scientist position.

“Serving our country, in the context of preserving our national defense capabilities, was a distinct honor and privilege of working at Los Alamos,” he says.

At this stage in his career, Bronkhorst says he was looking to contribute in new ways, and the opportunity to return to Madison and teach students was too exciting to pass up.

“Moving into an educator role will allow me to make a greater impact,” he says. “I’m especially excited to work with students and prepare the next generation of engineers and scientists to make a difference.”

Bronkhorst remains a guest scientist at Los Alamos and maintains some activities and collaborations there. He looks forward to leveraging his connections at Los Alamos and other national and DoD labs to provide educational opportunities for his students.

He says the excellence of the EP department, with its unique combination of disciplines, was also a big draw. “Engineering mechanics is really my core discipline, so the mechanics side of the department is a very strong fit for me,” he says. “But I’ve also worked on projects with nuclear materials, such as researching fuel rod materials and radiation-induced damage in metallic material, that are relevant for the department’s nuclear engineering program, and I look forward to collaborating with faculty in the department and beyond.”

In fall 2019, Bronkhorst is teaching a course on plasticity theory, and he’ll teach continuum mechanics in spring 2020. “I’m also interested in teaching advanced fracture mechanics, which hasn’t been taught for some time because of faculty retirements, so that’s another way that this position allows me to contribute in new and complimentary ways to the department,” he says.

In addition to research and teaching, Bronkhorst is also serving as honorary commander of the 115th Fighter Wing Medical Group from 2019-2021. In this service role he is developing relationships between military professionals and UW-Madison and the EP department.

“After working on U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Defense projects at Los Alamos, I wanted to continue to serve my country in some capacity,” he says. “So I reached out to the Wisconsin Air National Guard to find a way I could contribute.”