Ralph G. Rudolph, 2000 Copper Black winner

MERF's first-ever Copper Black Award for Creative Achievement was presented to Ralph G. Rudolph, member of Pennsylvania's Lehigh Pocono group, at AG2K in Philadelphia.

The winning invention was one of 14 submissions that encompassed accomplishments in a wide array of fields. Rudolph is the senior research engineer at the Bethlehem Steel Co. and has given his own description of the winning achievement below.

"Within the steel industry, steel sheet is produced in the form of coils that weigh many tons. Each coil is unwound and rewound many times as it is descaled, cleaned, rolled thinner or coated with other metals such as zinc or tin. In each of these steps, the coil is often exposed to water. If the water is not totally removed before recoiling the strip, water trapped between the layers spreads out and quickly forms rust.

"Naturally, we have blowers, ovens and the like that are intended to remove any water, but Murphy's Law comes into play: If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. So we sometimes produce coils that have internal rust. Obviously, our customers will reject these coils, which may be worth many tens of thousands of dollars each. The loss each year is significant.

"As a research scientist in the steel industry, I specialize in developing new types of measuring equipment. I take projects from initial theoretical investigations to personally building the equipment and installing and testing it in mills. About two years ago, I was asked if it would be possible to detect whether water, even in very thin films, was present on steel strip moving at up to 5,000 feet per minute.

"That was quite a challenge. I looked into quite a few optical techniques where the presence of water might alter the reflective properties of the strip. None proved sensitive enough. Finally, I settled on infrared methods. Although water is transparent at visible wavelengths of light, there are a number of wavelengths of infrared light where it is totally opaque. If the strip is illuminated with intense infrared light and is viewed at one of these wavelengths where water is opaque, the image will show water as black spots against a brightly lit background. I designed and built the infrared illumination and imaging device, and it works quite well. When it becomes more widely applied, it could save the steel industry millions of dollars a year."