News

August 17, 2009

Underground ‘Rockstar’

From breakaway hockey goalposts to disc drives to MRI technology, Stan Trout ’73 has made huge contributions in the world of magnetism

The next time you pop a CD into your computer’s disc drive, think of Stan Trout ’73. He may not admit it, but in the world of magnetism, he’s sort of a big deal.

In May, Trout presented the plenary lecture at the International Conference on Magnetics in Sacramento. While he has worked on high-profile projects like MRI technology and breakaway ice hockey goalposts, he is proudest of a moment when he disregarded his boss’ orders and performed an experiment to use hydrogen gas to break up an alloy as part of magnet processing.

“My boss at the time told me specifically not to do the experiment,” recalls Trout, who was working as a senior development engineer at Hitachi Magnetics. “I did it anyway. Once we found out that it worked and worked well, my sin was forgiven. We applied for a patent and it became part of our process for making magnets.”

In July, Trout visited a magnet plant in Tianjin, China. As his group walked around it, the guide started to explain the use of hydrogen in breaking up the alloy.

“I smiled at the familiar story,” he recalls. “I am very proud that almost every neodymium magnet made in the world today is exposed to hydrogen as an integral part of the process, in much the same way I first did it back in 1984. Last year, over 500 million disc drives were sold and each one of them has at least one neodymium magnet in it that was treated with hydrogen as part of the fabrication process.”

Trout’s wife, Pamela, helps him run Spontaneous Materials, a magnet materials and rare earth consultancy firm he founded in 2001 in Fishers, Ind. She has benefitted directly from his work. When MRI technology, which needs a very large magnetic field to operate, was still in its infancy, he made the magnets used by one of the major players, and she has since had several MRI scans to diagnose health issues.

And although his design is no longer in use, he developed a way to fix ice hockey goalposts to the ice using magnets and changed the rules of the game. If a player hits the post, it moves, preventing injury. Play is stopped when the post is dislodged, so there is now a two-minute penalty for any goaltender that intentionally dislodges the goal posts.

Trout wears many hats at Spontaneous Materials, including troubleshooter to teacher. When a company noticed that its magnets had lost strength, he traveled to its supplier’s plant in Ningbo, China, to find the answer.

“I found that someone had made a very small change to the composition, which they thought would be helpful,” says Trout, who counts frequent trips to Asia as one of the highlights of his career. “Instead, it caused other problems, and of course it is never good for a supplier to make a change without consulting with the customer. Once the change was undone, the problem went away.”

He also has developed Magnetics Bootcamp, a one-day seminar designed to teach engineers everything they need to know about magnets.

Trout understands that most people don’t know a whole lot about magnets, including the late K. Roald Bergethon. He ran into Lafayette’s 12th president at a campus function for alumni admissions representatives in 1990.

“He asked me what I was doing,” Trout recalls, “and I said, ‘I have a job selling all the elements at the bottom of the periodic table.’ Just to make my point, I pulled a small periodic table out of my shirt pocket to show him where they were. He was a bit surprised and asked, ‘Do you always carry a periodic table with you?’ And I said, ‘And you don’t?’”

The attention Trout received at Lafayette is something he strives to give his students as a part-time instructor.

“A small undergraduate institution is the place to be, something I tell my students at Marian University,” says the physics graduate. “It is certainly true that larger institutions can have more facilities, but undergraduates rarely get to use them. I had some very small classes at Lafayette; my smallest was four students. You can’t hide and do not get lost in small classes with great professors.”

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