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School of Mines at center of high-tech research

School of Mines at center of high-tech research


A machine that looks like some sort of space-age drill that has sprouted a myriad of hoses and wires, some fed from computers, looms over the Advanced Materials Processing center at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

The machine, a rare friction stir welder, is part of a set of space-age technology at Mines that is drawing Defense Department research money to the university and to a growing number of defense-related companies in western South Dakota.

The School of Mines has been at the center of the growth.

Before his death on Nov. 28, Bill Arbegast had been director of the Advanced Materials Processing center, as well as the Friction Stir Processing center and the new Repair, Refurbish and Return to Service (R3S)

Applied Research Center at Mines.

Arbegast came to Mines after he had worked with friction stir welding to build fuel tanks for the space shuttle in the 1990s.

He helped Mines obtain one of the first friction stir welding units in the country. Mines’ stir welder is the only one of its kind in the U.S. The serial number is 001.

Now it is being used not only for research at Mines, but also for work by private firms such as H.F. Webster of Rapid City, which is trying to show that military parts can be repaired using friction stir welding.

For years, Mines has been getting a share of research money spent by the Department of Defense.

The university has 136 active research projects worth more than $47 million. Of those, 43 came from the Department of Defense, according to Dr. Ron White, vice president for research at Mines.

The largest amount, $7.1 million, came from the Army research lab, White said.

In the 2010 defense appropriations bill approved in December, Mines will directly receive $6.9 million for defense department research projects.

Some of the other

defense department

funding, indirectly related to Mines, is in partnership with military-related companies around Rapid City, such as H.F. Webster (friction stir welding), RPM & Associates (laser deposition), and Dakota Power, which is run by Dick Gowen, a former Mines president.

Part of Mines’ mission is to move some of the technology it develops into the private sector, through its Office of Technology Transfer.

Some of the research at Mines is also funded by other universities and other companies.

It’s a good collaboration, according to White, who came on board at Mines in the middle of 2009.

The primary benefit is a training ground in cutting-edge technology for Mines students, White said. But it also provides revenue to support scientific programs.

And it bolsters Mines reputation. “That’s extremely important to attract the right students and the right kind of faculty in the future,” White said.

Meanwhile, with two wars ongoing, the DOD and the administration understand that defense research is extremely important, White said. “This is giving us a leg up in a lot of our fighting.”

Last March, the School of Mines announced it would be the site of a new 2010 research center focusing on developing and certifying repair processes that extend the life of military equipment. The Repair, Refurbish and Return to Service Applied Research Center, or R3S, will develop, certify and implement innovative methods to refurbish and return to service vital military equipment.

At the R3S center, Mines will collaborate with South Dakota State University, Western Dakota Technical Institute and other educational partners; industrial partners such as H.F. Webster and RPM & Associates in Rapid City; and corporations such as Boeing, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin, Rolls Royce and Friction Stir Link.

Arbegast saw the center as benefiting both the School of Mines and Rapid City.

“The center will identify new technologies and will need people in the Rapid City area to implement them. We will need supporting industries to transition to true production, and expect that several high-tech spinoff companies will be developed in Rapid City,” Arbegast said last year.

Inspiration for the R3S center came from a 2007 Aging Aircraft Repair Facility study conducted by Mines. The study showed that using these technologies to repair and refurbish B-1B bombers and related aircraft could save the Air Force $35 million per year. Using the technologies on other military equipment would expand the cost savings across the Department of Defense into the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the study.

Mines, like some private companies, already is looking to diversify its research beyond the military applications, according to Butch Skillman, director of the Office of Technology Transfer. “In terms of our own initiatives, I think the School of Mines is starting to come of age in that we’re not just expecting to carry all of our eggs in that single DOD basket,” he said.

But even when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and defense spending for research gets cut, military research is not going away, White said.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8415 or


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