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Hyunseok Oh
January 6, 2023

Focus on new faculty: Hyunseok Oh is making metal more recyclable

Written By: Jason Daley

After several years of studying materials science as an undergraduate at Seoul National University in South Korea, Hyunseok Oh had a philosophical crisis. He began questioning the purpose of engineering and whether he could really use it to do good in the world.

Oh was considering shifting gears and working for a non-governmental organization after graduation when he took a bus tour that went past a small city with an open pit iron mine. “The company running the mine didn’t care about the environment or the city,” he remembers. “So the people washed themselves in this polluted river and prepared their food with the water. After seeing that, I thought I’d like to contribute to the metallurgy industry to improve the quality of life in these types of cities and think about sustainability challenges. After that, I decided to enter graduate school.”

Now, Oh is an assistant professor in materials science and engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, investigating ways to develop strong, durable and robust high-performance metals.

Oh completed his PhD at Seoul National University before taking a position as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT in 2018. During his PhD, he studied metallic glass and high entropy alloys. Typically, the properties of these alloys are tuned by trial and error. But Oh was able to develop some general rules on how to mix them to create high-strength metals.

At MIT, he continued studying high entropy alloys and also researched the composition and microstructure of commercial steel, which he plans to continue investigating in Madison.

“Metal is the backbone of modern industry. There is a lot of demand for high-performance metals with high durability, light weight and other properties. And this affects sustainability,” says Oh. “That’s because the more elements we use to achieve these properties, the more complex the metals become. And that makes it hard to recycle because of the impurities.”

The production of steel is one of the largest contributors of carbon emissions, accounting for about 8% of the global total. Aluminum recycling, on the other hand requires only 5% of the energy used for producing new aluminum.

“One of the ultimate targets of my research is to develop microstructures in metals robust enough to be insensitive to impurities or to processing,” he says. “So, we want to make recycled metals competitive with metals created from their ore.”

An experimentalist, Oh will use UW-Madison’s metallurgy resources to synthesize these metals. He plans to characterize them using various types of in-situ microscopy techniques as well as the synchrotron at Argonne National Laboratory. He hopes to study these metals at the atomic and nanoscale and look in particular at how extremely small clusters of elements that form in the metals affect their properties and phase transformations.

Oh says UW-Madison’s materials science and engineering department is an ideal place to study metals since it has a deep expertise in metallurgy, strong data science and materials modeling capabilities, and many experts in microscopy and materials characterization. “We will develop metals with many different properties and microstructures for different applications,” he says. “I’m very interested in collaborating with all these people.”