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Alumni Focus - Ken Balkey


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The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) is the largest in the Swanson School of Engineering in terms of students and faculty. All of our programs are ABET-accredited. The Department's core strengths include:

  • Advanced Manufacturing and Design
  • Materials for Extreme Conditions
  • Soft Matter Biomechanics
  • Computational and Data-Enabled Engineering
  • Cyber-Physical Systems and Security
  • Nuclear and other Sustainable Energies
  • Quantitative and In Situ Materials Characterization

MEMS faculty are not only world-renowned academicians, but accessible teachers who seek to inspire and encourage their students to succeed.  

The Department also has access to more than 20 laboratory facilities that enhance the learning process through first-rate technology and hands-on experience.

Each year, the Department graduates approximately 90 mechanical and materials science engineers, with nearly 100% placed in excellent careers with industry and research facilities around the globe.


Building a Foundation for High-Power Tech

Grants, Electrical & Computer, MEMS

As electrification advancement accelerates and more renewables are integrated into the electric grid, improved power electronics systems are needed to convert AC or DC power into a usable form. New semiconductor device materials and advanced magnetic materials can enable an unprecedented combination of voltage levels and power handling capabilities.However, the latest class of new switching devices, which use so-called ultra-wide bandgap (UWBG) semiconductor materials, will also require improved soft magnetic materials and manufacturing approaches not currently available.Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering are working to solve that problem with new materials and manufacturing processes that will establish a foundation for UWBG semiconductors in novel power electronics switching devices. Their investigation received $820,000 in funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to support graduate students to explore new ideas in magnetic materials, advanced manufacturing, and advanced component design methods and techniques.“Ultra-high frequency soft magnetics technologies, ranging from 50 kilohertz to as high as the megahertz range, are going to play an important role in the next generation of power electronics and power conversion technologies,” said Paul Ohodnicki, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, director of the Engineering Science program and the Advanced Magnetics for Power and Energy Development (AMPED) consortium. “Our work will help to overcome limitations of current materials and manufacturing, and we will also develop and demonstrate new methods and techniques for optimized magnetic component design leveraging these latest advances.”Applications for this new technology include power dense electrical power conversion technologies for electric vehicle design, aircraft electrification, or power converters for grid integration applications. For many of these, the converters need to be as small and light as possible while still handling the same amount of electric power. The higher switching frequencies made possible by these new materials would be more efficient and could, for example, increase the range of electric vehicles.Ohodnicki is leading the project with Ahmed Talaat, visiting assistant research faculty, and Brandon Grainger, Eaton Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Grainger is also associate director of the Energy GRID Institute and co-director of AMPED at the University of Pittsburgh.The four-year project will address the need for advanced ultrahigh frequency soft magnetics and focus on creation of new ferrite-based systems, advanced manufacturing of components for optimal performance, and the design of optimized transformer and inductor components. The work will also demonstrate enhanced design and optimization tools for inductors.“Emerging ultra-wide bandgap semiconductor materials have enormous potential for high-power applications, but there needs to be a pathway for the magnetic material and component design first,” said Brandon Grainger. “Our project will establish the fundamental research necessary to make that happen.”

MEMS Department Recognizes Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Assistant


In the times of COVID and hybrid class delivery, teaching assistants have become more valuable than ever to faculty instructing large courses. Samantha Wismer, ME junior, and TA for three ENGR and MEMS courses this past academic year, has gone above and beyond to ensure her student peers have the best learning experience possible.Some of Wismer’s duties included reviewing instructor and student lecture slides for errors (typographical, mathematical, conceptual, grammatical, etc.) to ensure a top-tier product was delivered to students. She was responsible for reviewing several semesters of homework, quizzes and exams to provide students with study aids and access to materials. She was also tasked with the creation of 3-5 minute post-recorded lecture video questions, along with the creation of worksheets to give students extra practice. These activities require the use of LaTex, Adobe Illustrator and Top Hat, all of which Wismer has become proficient in.Wismer holds weekly office hours and is constantly available via Zoom and by email for not only the classes she is TA for, but any class students’ may be struggling with. She has put in evening and weekend hours to help build “At Home Makerspace Kits” to ship out to students.Professor Matt Barry is the instructor for all three classes Wismer is a TA for. He notes, “For all of these classes, there have been numerous compliments and glowing reviews of Samantha's helpfulness and willingness to go above and beyond to help her fellow students. Many from ENGR 0135 enrolled in MEMS 0031 and MEMS 0051 based solely on Samantha's presence as the UTA.” Barry also says he admires her tenacity, perseverance and patience.Outside of the Department, Wismer is a level II national accredited tutor for the Physics Lab at Pitt, where she uses these skills and knowledge to better serve MEMS students. Additionally, Wismer has co-authored a textbook which is currently used in a Pitt engineering class. She also co-authored two conference papers.Wismer is one shining example of the amazing undergraduate students in MEMS, and the Department would like to recognize and thank her for her dedicated commitment and service!5/10/2021Contact: Meagan Lenze

Upcoming Psyche Inspired Showcase


Psyche Inspired is a cross-discipline internship program for undergraduate students designed to share NASA’s Psyche mission in a unique way through artistic and creative works. These works are published online and collected in downloadable books which tell the story of Psyche through musical scores, sculptures, painting, 3-D models, photography, acrylic art, needlepoint, stop-motion films, and mixed media. The program rolled out nationally in 2018 and this year’s cohort is known as the Nickel Class. Aarti Patel, ME junior, was a part of the Nickel cohort. Read more about her experience and the Brooke Owens Fellowship she received here.You can also register now to view the Psyche Inspired Online Showcase, which runs from May 10-24, 2021. Applications are now being accepted for 2022.5/6/2021Contact: Meagan Lenze

Alumni Focus-Ken Balkey

Alumni, MEMS

Ken Balkey’s history at the University of Pittsburgh began long before his current position as an adjunct lecturer in the MEMS department. In fact, the entire Balkey family has a history with Pitt and it begins with Ken’s father, Joe.Joe Balkey worked at the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company’s Nuttall Plant in Lawrenceville where he manufactured large gear motor parts starting in 1941. When the Westinghouse plant closed in 1960, he took his life savings and began a renewal parts business named Joseph C. Balkey Sales with the full devotion of his wife Marie. He became well-known for solving breakdown issues and some of his customers included the Duquesne Incline, Pittsburgh Asphalt Company and the U.S. Navy.As a teenager attending North Catholic High School, Ken helped cut keyways in gears for his father’s customers, a technical endeavor that influenced his decision to become a mechanical engineer.When it came time for college, Balkey’s parents encouraged him and his two brothers to pursue engineering, and all three siblings obtained advanced degrees from Pitt. Ken earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1972 and his master’s in the same concentration in 1980. His elder brother, Joe, received degrees in chemical engineering and his younger brother, Dave, acquired his degrees in industrial engineering.During his time at Pitt, Balkey noted how he greatly respected all of his engineering professors. He says, “They all had their own unique teaching styles that caused students to adjust their way to learn and understand the important information that was provided in each course, which reflects the real world.” One instructor that particularly stood out to Balkey was Professor Roy Marangoni. Professor Marangoni taught Balkey in both undergraduate and graduate courses on vibration, which he says had direct use and were greatly beneficial to him during the early days of his career.More prominently, Professor Marangoni was Balkey’s faculty advisor for his team’s senior capstone project on determining the natural frequencies of a three-mass torsional system. Balkey was the group’s presenter and project report creator which he says prepared him well for the industry. He notes, “I could readily pull together efforts from addressing complex issues in a succinct and straightforward manner that everyone can understand. I have published many articles on a wide range of challenging topics during my career. I thought of Dr. Marangoni many times over the last 50 years when I found myself in similar situations as our senior capstone design project.”Balkey served as secretary of the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which he describes as one of the best decisions he made as a student. He was encouraged to join as a sophomore by a senior student, Tim Andreychek. Post-graduation, the two men ended up working together at Westinghouse where they often reminisced about their time as ASME students.During the summer after his freshman year, Balkey interned at Houser & Carafas Engineering Company where he assisted draftsman supporting the steel industry. That led to a position with Reliance Engineering Company, where he was able to do his own engineering drawing work. Balkey says all this experience was quite helpful to have on his resume as he applied for engineering jobs upon graduation.Balkey had an impressive athletic tenure at Pitt which started with a recommendation from retired Pitt track and field coach, Carl Olson, to join the track and cross teams as a walk-on. Coach Olson made the recommendation upon learning Balkey completed the 1968 Boston Marathon as a high school senior. He joined the teams as a freshman and continued to win and improve throughout the year. By the end his freshman year, Balkey shaved over 30 seconds off of his mile time, eventually completing a 4 minute 17 second indoor mile. Since he was running better than many of the other top freshman in the eastern half of the country, he was offered an athletic scholarship for his remaining three years on the teams.Balkey admits much of his success was likely due to trying to impress his future wife, Ruth Anne. He met Ruth Anne during his freshman year at Pitt while ice skating at a public session at the Civic Arena. Ruth Anne was a junior in high school at the time. He says it was love at first sight! But, he told her that he was not able to ask her on a date due to his engineering course load and commitments to the Pitt track team. Ruth Anne agreed to come watch him at a track meet at the Fitzgerald Field House instead. It was this meet that Balkey first shattered his record mile time.Ruth Anne came to Pitt two years later to pursue a degree in education. Balkey saved a few of his electives so they could take classes together. He says, “Without a doubt, Ruth Anne has had the most significant impact on my life from helping me with my engineering studies, to supporting many leadership roles at Westinghouse, ASME and numerous other organizations.”However, managing his workload and demanding sports schedule proved to be difficult and Balkey found his grades slipping. He recalls being approached by Coach Olson one day after practice freshman year. Coach asked him how his grades were, and when he replied that he was receiving B’s and C’s, coach scolded him. Balkey said he was stunned and that the interaction had a powerful impact on him. The next semester during his sophomore year, Balkey began the ME program. He met with three friends every day after class to strategize how to address their homework problems. They would then disburse to work on the problems on their own. Balkey said this approach made a huge difference to him, “It reduced the time it took me to do my homework while better understanding the material that was presented in class.” He began getting better grades and by his second semester junior year he was one of six out of over 400 Pitt student-athletes to earn a 4.0 that semester. He was also the only engineering student-athlete to do so. Balkey was so excited he went to find Coach Olson right away to share the news. He says, “I ended up graduating with honors with an overall GPA of 3.41 that got me in the door to be interviewed for my job at Westinghouse. Coach Olson’s push made an enormous difference for me in getting a great job and launching my 42-year career at the company for which I am eternally grateful.”Balkey’s 42-year Westinghouse career began in 1972 in the Pressurized Water Reactor Systems Division. He notes, “[The] work included use of static and dynamic analysis methods that aligned with material learned in my Pitt M.E. undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with methods of analytical dynamics, advanced vibrations, and theory of elastic/plastic analysis.”As the 70s became the 80s, Balkey continued to advance his career at Westinghouse. In 1983, he was recognized in the industry for leading team efforts in integrating probabilistic risk assessment pressurized thermal shock event frequencies with probabilistic fracture mechanics methods to address concerns with reactor pressure vessel integrity at nuclear power plants in the U.S. and many other countries. This state-of-the-art approach kept five U.S. reactors from facing immediate shutdown, and further work over the last decades in this area has assured safe continued operation of nuclear power plants around the world today in the generation of reliable, emission free electricity.This work opened opportunities in management for Balkey, which he declined in order to pursue a technical leadership path. The inspiration to take this path came from a conversation he had with respected Westinghouse consulting engineer, Floyd Moschini. Moschini said his senior technical leadership position afforded him the opportunity to influence the nuclear industry in a unique, positive way and that he derived much personal satisfaction from his work. Balkey realized this was something he also wanted. In his last position before retiring from Westinghouse in 2014, Balkey was promoted to the same engineering consulting position Moschini held years earlier. He concluded his career at Westinghouse with over four decades of service in the global nuclear power industry.As Balkey advanced his career at Westinghouse, he also advanced his roles and responsibilities within ASME which eventually led him to serve as vice president, ASME Nuclear Codes and Standards (2005-2008) and then the highly respected role of senior vice president, ASME Standards and Certification (2011-2014). The latter organization is comprised of more than 5,500 dedicated ASME staff and volunteers from around the world. As senior vice president, Balkey had oversight of the development of more than 500 standards used across many industries and in over 100 countries. He also chaired the ASME Council on Standards and Certification from 2011 to 2014. Balkey is the only in the Pittsburgh region ever to serve this role, which is chosen based on peer recommendation and appointment by a wide range of industries and government organizations. The role afforded him the opportunity travel and work with highly respected engineers and other leaders from around the globe.Today, Balkey remains an active volunteer with ASME (over 50 years!) where he works to raise funds for ASME engineering scholarships and other philanthropic programs. He also strives to get engineering standards content infused into undergraduate mechanical engineering curricula in the U.S. and in other countries accredited by ASME.Other notable accomplishments throughout Balkey’s career include receiving the IntraFirm Volunteer of the Year Award by the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering for enhancing the relationship between Westinghouse Electric Company and the University of Pittsburgh. He arranged annual updates from SSOE’s Development office to employees at Westinghouse and encouraged them to participate in the nuclear engineering program at Pitt.Additionally, he received an invitation from the Executive Office of the U.S. President to attend a strategic White House workshop on critical infrastructure priorities post 9/11. He also joined a group of recognized experts in publishing a special ASME report on nuclear safety construct following the Great East Japan earthquake in March 2011.Balkey has authored over 150 publications and technical reports related to risk evaluations, and holds two patents on pressure vessel integrity and risk-informed inspection of heat exchangers. His honors include the ASME Melvin R. Green Codes and Standards Medal (2008), the ASME Bernard F. Langer Nuclear Codes and Standards Award (2002) and numerous other awards from ASME, Westinghouse, and more.Throughout his impressive tenure with Westinghouse and ASME, Balkey interacted with numerous associates also involved with Pitt SSOE in some capacity. Westinghouse colleague and fellow Pitt grad, Dr. Gary Elder, has worked with Balkey since 2010 to co-teach to their Pitt graduate course in nuclear engineering dealing with real world applications of nuclear codes and standards. Balkey notes, “Any recognition that has come my way during my career, it has always come by working with so many other talented people. I am forever grateful for having the honor and privilege of working with so many talented people from around the globe during my career.”Balkey credits the help and support of his parents, along with his athletic scholarship, as the reasons to why he was able to obtain his education from Pitt. He notes that his scholarship was invaluable and came at a time that he really needed the help.Therefore, when their father passed in 2013, the Balkey brothers decided to establish the Joseph C. and Marie A. Balkey Family Engineering Legacy Fund to honor their parents for the significant sacrifices they made to support their children in engineering education and careers. The income from the fund is used for the purpose of supporting the Swanson School of Engineering at the discretion of the Dean.In the spirit of giving, Ken and Ruth Anne have also recently pledged to fund two endowed scholarships, one for a MEMS student and the second for an ASME scholarship. Balkey notes the scholarships have been something he has wanted to do for a while as a way to pay it forward in the hopes that it will help others as he was helped 50 years ago. Balkey notes one of the key intentions of making his pledge to endow a Pitt engineering scholarship is to encourage others to follow in his example.Ken and Ruth Anne have been together for 52 years and just celebrated their 47th year of marriage. They have two children, Karen and Keith, and three grandchildren, Lucas, Max and Nina. Keith also attended the University of Pittsburgh where he obtained his bachelor’s in business administration in 2004. Keith joined his father at Westinghouse for the last six years of his career at the company.Balkey’s current involvement at Pitt does not stop with his generous donations and adjunct lectureship. He is also a member of the Pitt Panther Club and Varsity Letter Club. He regularly attends the Swanson School of Engineering golf outings and the Distinguished Alumni Banquet each spring. Additionally, he is a reviewer for the senior design projects. He says, “It is quite enjoyable to connect with current and past faculty, alums, students, and Development Office staff each year at these events.”Balkey hopes to inspire others to pursue the field of engineering for the self-fulfillment derived from contributing to the improvement and advancement of everyday society and the excitement of participating in future global initiatives.# # #Photo 1: Joseph C. Balkey (on left with extended right leg) at Westinghouse Gearing Division – Nuttall Plant, Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh, PA – Circa 1941Photo 2: Ken Balkey running track for Pitt at the Fitzgerald Field House circa 1971Photo 3: Joseph and Marie Balkey (seated in front) 40th Wedding Anniversary September 14, 1986. Back row: Joe and Ann Balkey, Kathleen and David Balkey, Ruth Anne and Ken Balkey; Grandchildren Keith and Karen Balkey standing next to their grandparents.4/29/2021Contact: Meagan Lenze

Designing New Alloys for Additive Manufacturing

MEMS, Banner, Research

Additive manufacturing (AM), a burgeoning technology for alloy fabrication, allows engineers to specifically manufacture a complex component in any shape. However, due to the unique processing involved, the alloy behaves differently during fabrication using AM when compared with other traditional manufacturing techniques.The alloy components produced by AM can easily develop a texture that makes them behave like wood in some ways—stronger along the grain than against it—and thus limits the strength (its resistance to distortion and fracture) and ductility (how much it can elongate before it breaks). There is a well-known trade-off between strength and ductility, which cannot be fully solved using current AM techniques, like reducing the grain size through externally applied deformation.Wei Xiong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, will study the fundamental mechanisms behind this trade-off in a new project that received a $526,334 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year project, titled “Unraveling Fundamental Mechanisms Governing Grain Refinement in Complex Concentrated Alloys Made by Additive Manufacturing Towards Strong and Ductile Structures,” began on April 15, 2021.“The ability to produce strong yet tough structural alloys is a necessary step toward getting the most out of new, innovative materials and manufacturing,” said Xiong, who last year also received the Early Career Faculty Fellow Award from the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (known as TMS). “This project will provide a fundamental understanding that can overcome the well-known problem that, in general, the stronger a material is, the less ductile it becomes. Moreover, we will also design new alloys that can be additively manufactured”.Grain refinement is a method used to augment a material by changing the size of its grain structure, improving both its strength and ductility. Xiong’s project aims to understand the underlying mechanism of grain refinements in complex concentrated alloys made by additive manufacturing of combinations of multiple chemical element additions.Xiong’s Physical Metallurgy and Materials Design Lab will investigate whether increasing entropy, or disorder, in an alloy system will slow grain coarsening and stabilize microstructures, making the material both strong and ductile. Particularly, they will focus on mixing alloy powders to print complex concentrated alloys, which is a new type of material that usually stabilizes the microstructure due to its resulting high entropy.There are plenty of earthly reasons that AM has exploded as a way to fabricate alloy parts. There are some good interplanetary reasons, too.“Think about, in the future, if we colonize Mars and want to build stations using 3D printing. No one wants to bring hundreds of different alloy powders to travel with the rocket,” said Xiong. “We want to bring maybe only three or four different types of powders to serve the needs of building an entire station on Mars, so we can mix them with different ratios to fabricate different parts by additive manufacturing.”“The developed technique can also help to save the cost of alloy powder production for various engineering purposes and enhance the sustainability of 3D printing by providing recipes to recycle and reuse existing metal powders," he continued. “Therefore, it is important to explore the effective pathways of microstructure engineering of these alloys by additive manufacturing, and that is why I proposed such a topic.”According to the NSF, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is its most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. This award marks the fourth consecutive year that a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science has received a CAREER Award.Maggie Pavlick, 4/28/2021Contact: Maggie Pavlick
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