November 26, 2014  

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Southern Miss Professors Helping Push Polymer Science to Highest Levels

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Southern Miss assistant professor Jeff Wiggins checks an instrument in the polymer science lab. (Office of University Communications photo by Van Arnold)

To say University of Southern Mississippi polymer science professors and students are developing high-tech materials for today’s fast-paced world would be a profound understatement.

Try jet engines. Indeed, the Southern Miss School of Polymers and High Performance Materials stands at the forefront of research designed to create advanced composite materials for aircraft engines and systems.

Since the summer of 2009 Southern Miss has partnered with General Electric Aviation on technology and advanced material development for the company’s Batesville Composites Operation in Batesville, Miss. On Wednesday, July 27 the partnership grew even stronger with the announcement that GE Aviation would be opening a $56 million plant with similar objectives at the Howard Technology Park in Ellisville, Miss.

“Having a globally recognized leader in aerospace engine technology as our corporate research partner within minutes of the Hattiesburg campus is a mutual win for Southern Miss and GE Aviation,” said Southern Miss President Martha Saunders. “I firmly believe in order to develop the human capital needed to maintain a knowledge-based economy we must align the university’s assets, and in our case innovative research, with the local economy.”

Saunders emphasized that the Southern Miss School of Polymers and High Performance Materials “needs no introduction in Ellisville, Mississippi, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. They are simply that good at what they do and the research they conduct.”

Southern Miss polymer science professors Sarah Morgan, Jeff Wiggins and James Rawlins have played instrumental roles in developing and testing composite components, such as fan blades, for the global marketplace. These advanced materials are lightweight and highly durable which translates to fuel savings, lower energy costs and reduced maintenance for sophisticated jet engines.

“Collectively, we as a faculty are engaged with almost every global player on the planet with regard to composites, materials for specialty performance coatings, functional films and a wide variety of other applications,” said Rawlins. “We feel that connectivity. It’s our polymer web, if you will.”

Morgan noted that three polymer science students had already completed internships at the Batesville plant, paving the way for similar opportunities.

“We’re really excited about having more opportunities for internships and co-ops for our students,” said Morgan. “Since our foundation we’ve been recognized as a leader in polymer science research and we’ve been advancing that over the years so that we’re not only doing polymer chemistry now but also polymer science and engineering and high performance materials.”

Job creation remains the hottest topic in the United States today and Wiggins points out that the partnership with GE Aviation is only one wedge of the gigantic employment pie.

“We’re starting to see quite a bit of activity with other large companies such as Boeing who is also developing advanced composite materials,” he said. “Thus, we’re developing a broad platform to support advanced materials development right here in South Mississippi.”

Gov. Haley Barbour joined GE Aviation officials and other state dignitaries in unveiling the proposed Ellisville facility which will employ approximately 250 people. Ground-breaking on the 300,000-square-foot facility is scheduled before year’s end with production scheduled to start in the first half of 2013.

Barbour quipped that the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials “is a cool name for a really cool place.” And he lauded Southern Miss for pioneering such a highly respected program.

“Our universities are gold mines and schools like Southern Miss are finding ways to mine the talent and potential there to benefit people everywhere,” said Barbour.

For more information about the Southern Miss School of Polymers and High Performance Materials, call 601.266.4868 or visit http://www.usm.edu/polymer/