A Turkish Professor among the Most Distinguished Scientists in the World: Ali Erdemir

Professor Ali Erdemir is a Turkish materials scientist who is an Argonne National Laboratory Distinguished Fellow and Senior Scientist with international recognition and significant accomplishments in the fields of materials science, surface engineering and tribology. His discoveries were major breakthroughs in the field. He was born in Kadirli, Adana. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Metallurgy from the Istanbul Technical University in 1977.

Erdemir has dedicated nearly his entire career to reducing the friction between moving parts, an effort that recently culminated in his receipt of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ (ASME) Mayo D. Hersey Award “in recognition of distinguished and continued contribution over a substantial period of time to the advancement of lubrication science and engineering.”

He has also received numerous awards, including 6 R&D 100 Awards; he holds 30 US patents; and has published more than 300 papers, 18 invited book and handbook chapters, and 3 edited books. His archival publications have generated more than 10,000 citations. He recently shared with us his story about his career journey to date.

How did your story begin in the US?

Came to US for a Master degree in Metallurgy/Materials Science back in 1979; after a very successful conclusion, I was then invited and urged by my Professors (at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia) to stay for the Ph.D. degree as well which I did.

Did you consider going back to Turkey after the completion of your Ph.D. studies?

Yes, after finishing my Ph.D. studies, I went back to Turkey in 1986 and looked for some job possibilities there, but the job market/outlook was not that good in Turkey at that time. Had to return to the same University where I got my Ph.D. and continue my research in there in the fields of Materials Science and Engineering. Then after the job opportunity at Argonne National Laboratory has come about and started there as an Assistant Scientist back in 1987, and then promoted to the highest rank which is Argonne Distinguished Fellow. All of this success of course did not fall from the sky; very hard, persistent, and creative research was all very important and took me all the way to the Presidency of the largest Engineering Society in my field (i.e., the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers) in US in 2016 and then to the Presidency of the International Tribology Council (an international body of all tribology societies, groups, and organizations in the world) in 2017.

You work in energy systems, friction experiments, nano technology, material science, surface engineering. Could you tell us more, so that we can understand more about your field?

I work to design, develop and implement new materials, coatings, lubricants that can minimize friction and wear. These two effects consume nearly 20% of the total energy produced in the world. Literally all moving objects, machines, or systems are subject to friction and wear and to overcome all these, we must spend a lot of energy. On an average, nearly 35% of the energy generated by burning gasoline or diesel fuels in the cars that we ride or drive every day is consumed by friction and wear-related losses. Burnt fuels create large amounts of carbon dioxide and other emissions and these contribute to greenhouse effect and hence global warming or climate change. In our work place, we constantly strive to develop new materials and technologies that can curtail friction and wear-related losses in order to save energy and environment. Some of these technologies have been patented and recognized by very prestigious R&D-100 awards (six awards so far) which are considered as the Oscars of Innovation; others were honored by leading science and engineering societies.

Superlow friction diamond and coatings are also considered
among your important discoveries Professor Erdemir?

Yes, as the hardest material know, diamond has been one of our major focus areas in the past. This means that if employed on a rubbing surface, it will dramatically reduce or nearly eliminate wear. Knowledge gained from these diamond studies were then expanded toward a diamondlike carbon, which literally provided near-zero friction. In another research we, developed a novel composite coating that can produce these diamond and like layers in situ from lubricants or oil molecules; in another fronts, we have achieved superlow friction using graphene and nanodiamond particles; and the research continues in other emerging areas of science where we can further reduce the adverse impacts of friction and thus enhance machine performance and efficiency.

Could you please tell us about the differences in terms of scientific research between the two countries?

I have only been an observer or outsider on the level or caliber of research being pursued in Turkey for quite long time. I have some friends who are very active in various research areas there and my outsider impression is that the potential is very high but perhaps not being fully utilized or exploited. Scientific research in US has always been in full force and maintained a high and steady momentum for many years. It is very dynamic and progressive; as we hear and witness many new discoveries coming from many academic, industrial, and other research labs on a daily basis. I think strong funding for and valuing the importance of science and technology are all important for further expanding the frontiers of science and technology which has helped immensely in the making and shaping of our modern lifestyles of today.

Would your career path be the same if you had stayed in Turkey?

I would think that I would still be a good, skilled metallurgical engineer fulfilling the needs of my work place. People around me would still appreciate what I do and talk highly of my contributions.

How can Turkey improve scientific studies in the country?

By developing and adopting a science and technology policy which brings the best out of the scientists and engineers wherever they are and whatever they are doing. More specifically, a system that rewards hard work, success and creativity must be the only criterion for peer recognitions and career advances.

How many patents do you have?

We are encouraged by our management to constantly think about new things and ideas and then patent them to increase laboratory’s global stature in science and technology leadership. So far, I have been awarded more than 30 US and World patents and many more are pending in US Patent Office. Most of these are related to the discovery of new materials or functionalities that can positively impact device performance in a wide range of industrial fields.

Do you visit Turkey?

I of course visit my relatives and friends in Turkey whenever I can. Due to increased workload and responsibilities, the frequency has lately declined a bit.

How would you describe Turkey?

As a beautiful place with huge potentials in so many fronts.

Who is Professor Ali Erdemir? How would you describe yourself?

Ali Erdemir is and has always been an ordinary person with extreme curiosity about how things work or what things are made of. Since his pre-school days in a small village in Turkey (i.e., Goztasi, Kadirli), he has been a very curious person and this curiosity over science has multiplied during his college years and shifted toward understanding of how things work at the most fundamental levels and how we can take advantage of all these new insights we acquired. Most if not all of new discoveries in science and technology are the results of such fundamental understanding, and shaping such understanding to design or manipulate things to create new functionality in existing and new machines that make our lives better. I feel much responsible for making a positive contribution to my field every day, broader science and technology community, and to the whole humanity. I think these guiding principles have been very instrumental in taking me to where I am today professionally and who I am personally.


Well, thank you very much Professor Erdemir, we appreciate your time.

Interview: Anıl Sural

Photo: Rona Doğan

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