Frank W. Gayle B.S.E. '75, M.S.E. '76

Writer: 
October 1, 2003
Frank W. Gayle B.S.E. '75, M.S.E. '76

Next to a hulking mass of twisted steel splayed on the floor of a hangar-like building outside Washington, D.C., Frank Gayle keeps a haunting picture from September 11, 2001.

The photograph shows the mangled face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Look closely at the eerie outline of a jetliner punched into the upper floors and you can see a woman standing at the bottom of the jagged hole, stunned and still unaware that a monolithic structure invulnerable to hurricanes would soon fall victim to the kind of fire no builder could have foreseen.

For Gayle, that woman is a reminder of the human side of his work as a metallurgist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he is leading a project focusing on structural steel in the federal government's official study to determine exactly what happened in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Metallurgy might seem the kind of profession unlikely to bring an engineer in touch with some of history's defining moments. But, since earning his master's degree in materials science, Gayle has had more than one occasion to examine metals that took on historical significance.

In 1994, he co-wrote a paper featured in Science, establishing that a chemical change called "precipitation hardening" occurred serendipitously during the casting of the aluminum engine of the Wright brothers' first airplane, the Flyer. Without that hardening, the engine might have cracked and that historic first flight turned into yet another failed effort.

Gayle joined NIST in 1988, after an early stint at Pratt and Whitney Aircraft and a decade with Reynolds Metals in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. During his years at Reynolds, he also earned a doctorate in metallurgy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the universities he had considered before choosing an undergraduate career at Duke.

Duke was a good choice, he says, because its liberal-arts curriculum encouraged him to get a broader education than he might otherwise have done. It also offered exposure to professors who fueled his passion for science and engineering, notably Franklin Hadley Cocks, professor of mechanical engineering and materials sciences, whom he calls both a brilliant scientist and a gifted teacher. At Duke, Gayle also took advantage of the opportunity to win acclaim in such practical pursuits as the engineering school's paper-airplane contest.

Back in the hangar and in other labs at NIST, he heads a team of engineers using samples of steel from the collapsed World Trade Center buildings to seek answers to questions about the effects of impacts, explosions, and high-temperature fires on the many kinds of steel that went into the structure: How did the fires fed by jet fuel change the properties of the steel? How abruptly did the steel structure slow the planes down? What changes should be made to high-rise building codes to better protect occupants?

NIST, a research arm of the Department of Commerce, has earned the kind of reputation for unbiased expertise that is crucial in understanding an event that caused such a loss of human life and billions of dollars in damages.

" We're glad to be working on this," Gayle says of his team. "It's nice to think we might be able to help bring something good from such a terrible day."