Meet the Scientist: Andrew Guenthner

 

The Honorable Frank Kendall (left), Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L), honors Dr. Andrew Guenthner (right), of the Air Force Research Laboratory, with the Department's Scientist of the Quarter award for the second quarter of 2016.

The Honorable Frank Kendall (left), Undersecretary of
Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L), honors Dr. Andrew
Guenthner (right), of the Air Force Research Laboratory, with the
Department’s Scientist of the Quarter award for the second quarter of 2016.


Meet the Scientists
 is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, and research and development: the greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time. If you know someone who should be featured, email us

WHO: Dr. Andrew Guenthner

Tell me a little about yourself: school, career summary paragraph, etc.

Because of a genetic eye defect, I am partially sighted.  Some people thought it would keep me from even finishing kindergarten.  Thankfully, my parents weren’t among them.  I grew up in rural Ohio, not far from Dayton, and I stayed in the state for both undergraduate (Case Western Reserve University) and graduate (The University of Akron) education.  During my undergraduate days, I also enjoyed working as a cooperative education student at the Owens-Corning Research and Development Center, also in Ohio.

After twenty-eight winters in Ohio, I wanted more sunshine.  In the spring of 2000, Dr. Geoffrey Lindsay of the Naval Air Warfare Center, China Lake offered me a civil service job.  The area around China Lake is the sunniest locale in America, and I thought that being able to serve the United States military through research was one of the best ways I could use my abilities, so I chose to accept the offer.  I’m happy to say that I’ve been serving the United States military in various technical and managerial research positions ever since.

TITLE: Principal Chemical Engineer and Applied Materials Group Lead in the Propellants Branch at the Air Force Research Laboratory, Aerospace Systems Directorate, at Edwards AFB, CA.

MISSION: The Directorate leads, discovers, develops, and delivers science and technology for air vehicles and their propulsion systems to the United States Air Force.  I am proud to be part of a Directorate whose work saves the lives of Airmen.

 Tell me a little about your technology/science.

A lot of what I do comes down to finding ways for lightweight rocket and missile structures to withstand higher temperatures than they do now.   Allowing these materials to withstand higher temperatures enables more of the space and weight in a rocket or missile to be devoted to generating thrust.  That translates into longer operating ranges, faster speeds, greater maneuverability, and more capable payloads for rockets and missiles.

What is your role in developing this technology/science?

A lot of the factors that limit the useful temperature range of lightweight structures are mundane things like how the materials are altered by being wet for a long time.  Despite their importance, those topics don’t generate a lot of excitement in the academic community, and they’re often too far removed from day-to-day production issues to receive sustained, long-term, basic science investments from industry.  One of the group’s roles is to fill in those gaps so that the combined efforts of academic, government, and industry scientists and engineers results in new and useful capabilities for the United States Air Force.

 What is the goal/mission of this technology/science and what do you hope it will achieve?

Our mission is always to give Airmen the technologies that will enable them to fly, fight, and win, and to do that in the smartest, most efficient way, addressing the areas where we will make the greatest difference.

In your own words, what is it about this technology/science that makes it so significant?

This is an area of technology that in some respects has been “stuck” at the same level for many decades.  The Air Force Research Laboratory has given us a rare opportunity to focus on making advances at the basic science level that will help to move past the sticking points and make a difference for the warfighter.

How could you use this technology/science to aid the military or help with military missions?

The technology has many potential military uses. A really interesting application area is structures for spacecraft that study the Sun.  Spacecraft that orbit close to the Sun or are exposed to concentrated sunlight can experience high temperatures, and the materials we are developing can be used to help keep the instruments on board those spacecraft operating properly at high temperatures.  Studies of the Sun are critical to understanding “space weather” that can disrupt military communications as well as command and control.

 What do you think is the most impressive/beneficial thing about this technology/science and why?

Wider use of this technology will benefit the military and civilian world in many ways.  Used in commercial aircraft and automobiles, the technology will reduce fuel consumption, saving energy and cutting down on pollution.  The technology can also help with fire resistance, improving the chances that people can survive catastrophic events such as airplane crashes and explosions.

What got you interested in this field of study?

I’ve always enjoyed imagining what the world would look like at different times, places, and length scales, including all the way down at the “atomic scale”.  For the work that we do in materials science, and the polymer networks in particular that we study, understanding very complicated atomic structures is vital for success.  So one of the most challenging aspects of the work that we do is something that I have always been excited about

Are you working on any other projects right now?

I am currently involved in technical work on about seven different projects at once right now.  One of the most interesting projects involves building a deployable apparatus for refining locally sourced fuels from around the world into high-quality fuels suitable for use with commercial-off-the-shelf equipment from the United States and other developed countries.  There are a number of potential use scenarios, including use within the United States for converting jet fuel into diesel in order to operate generators and ground vehicles in emergency situations.

 If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

I would visit America fifty years from now.  One hundred years from now the world might be so different that it could be difficult to understand, but, as an optimist about our country and the future, I believe the progress would be fascinating to observe.

What is your best advice for budding scientists?

Read as much Feynman as you can.  Read your favorite Feynman book or lecture on science and society again every few years.  If you get discouraged, put a copy of your favorite Feynman book on your desk, along with whatever else inspires you, and whenever you encounter big setbacks, or you feel trapped by rotten or parasitic people, or you discover that some of your colleagues are not actually collegial, just take a few minutes, don’t be afraid, find that source of inspiration, recharge your batteries, be strong, and then stand up for good science, do the right thing, outlearn your adversaries, and keep moving forward.

Do you have anything else you’d like to add about your work or yourself?

For more than seventy years now, the importance of science in guaranteeing a safe and prosperous future for our country has been widely recognized, but often we forget what good and productive science really is.  Science is a method for discovering how the world really works.  Good and productive science requires unending curiosity, unrelenting effort to disprove everything we think we know, undivided attention to observation, and only observation, for making decisions, and unbounded adaptability to accept and build upon ever-changing results.  It is extremely difficult for people to do science well.  Plans, programs, budgets, roadmaps, publicity, impact factors, laboratory logistics, “systems engineering”, and even the “scientific consensus” may be necessary elements in the management of scientific activities, but they do not make science good or productive.  On the contrary, focusing too much on these things often makes good and productive science impossible.  The future direction of our country depends on how well we learn this lesson.