Professor Emeritus Bernhardt Wuensch, crystallographer and esteemed educator, dies at 90

June 14, 2024

In education, he carried out a major overhaul of the curriculum in what is today MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). Despite his wide-ranging research and teaching interests, colleagues and students said, he was a perfectionist who favored quality over quantity. “All the work he did, he wasn’t in a hurry to get a lot of stuff done,” says DMSE’s Professor Harry Tuller. “A great, great teacher”Known as “Bernie” to friends and colleagues, Wuensch was equally at home in the laboratory and the classroom. She would later return to MIT as a PhD student working alongside Wuensch in his laboratory with a renewed perspective.

MIT Professor Emeritus Bernhardt Wuensch ’55, SM ’57, PhD ’63, a crystallographer and beloved teacher whose warmth and dedication to ensuring his students mastered the complexities of a precise science matched the analytical rigor he applied to the study of crystals, died this month in Concord, Massachusetts. He was 90.

Remembered fondly for his fastidious attention to detail and his office stuffed with potted orchids and towers of papers, Wuensch was an expert in X-ray crystallography, which involves shooting X-ray beams at crystalline materials to determine their underlying structure. He did pioneering work in solid-state ionics, investigating the movement of charged particles in solids that underpins technologies critical for batteries, fuel cells, and sensors. In education, he carried out a major overhaul of the curriculum in what is today MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).

Despite his wide-ranging research and teaching interests, colleagues and students said, he was a perfectionist who favored quality over quantity.

“All the work he did, he wasn’t in a hurry to get a lot of stuff done,” says DMSE’s Professor Harry Tuller. “But what he did, he wanted to ensure was correct and proper, and that was characteristic of his research.”

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1933, Wuensch first arrived at MIT as a first-year undergraduate in the 1950s. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics before switching to crystallography and earning a PhD from what was then the Department of Geology (now Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences). He joined the faculty of the Department of Metallurgy in 1964 and saw its name change twice over his 46 years, retiring from DMSE in 2011.

As a professor of ceramics, Wuensch was a part of the 20th-century shift from a traditional focus on metals and mining to a broader class of materials that included polymers, ceramics, semiconductors, and biomaterials. In a 1973 letter supporting his promotion to full professor, then-department head Walter Owen credits Wuensch for contributing to “a completely new approach to the teaching of the structure of materials.”

His research led to major advancements in understanding how atomic-level structures affect magnetic and electrical properties of materials. For example, Tuller says, he was one of the first to detail how the arrangement of atoms in fast-ion conductors — materials used in batteries, fuel cells, and other devices — influences their ability to swiftly conduct ions.

Wuensch was a leading light in other areas, including diffusion, the movement of ions in materials such as liquids or gases, and neutron diffraction, aiming neutrons at materials to collect information about their atomic and magnetic structure.

Tuller, a DMSE faculty member for 49 years, tapped Wuensch’s expertise to study zinc oxide, a material used to make varistors, semiconducting components that protect circuits from high-voltage surges of electricity. Together, Tuller and Wuensch found that in such materials ions move much more rapidly along the grain boundaries — the interfaces between the crystallites that make up these polycrystalline ceramic materials.

“It’s what happens at those grain boundaries that actually limits the power that would go through your computer during a voltage surge by instead short-circuiting the current through these devices,” Tuller says. He credited the partnership with Wuensch for the knowledge. “He was instrumental in helping us confirm that we could engineer those grain boundaries by taking advantage of the very rapid diffusivity of impurity elements along those boundaries.”

In recognition of his accomplishments, Wuensch was elected a fellow of the American Ceramics Society and the Mineralogical Society of America and belonged to other professional associations, including The Electrochemical Society and Materials Research Society. In 2003 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from South Korea’s Hanyang University for his work in crystallography and diffusion-related phenomena in ceramic materials.

“A great, great teacher”

Known as “Bernie” to friends and colleagues, Wuensch was equally at home in the laboratory and the classroom. “He instilled in several generations of young scientists this ability to think deeply, be very careful about their research, and be able to stand behind it,” Tuller says.

One of those scientists is Sossina Haile ’86, PhD ’92, the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, a researcher of solid-state ionic materials who develops new types of fuel cells, devices that convert fuel into electricity.

Her introduction to Wuensch, in the 1980s, was his class 3.13 (Symmetry Theory). Haile was at first puzzled by the subject, the study of the symmetrical properties of crystals and their effects on material properties. The arrangements of atoms and molecules in a material is crucial for predicting how materials behave in different situations — whether they will be strong enough for certain uses, for example, or can conduct electricity — but to an undergraduate it was “a little esoteric.”

“I certainly remember thinking to myself, ‘What is this good for?’” Haile says with a laugh. She would later return to MIT as a PhD student working alongside Wuensch in his laboratory with a renewed perspective.

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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