N M Tech Grad Student Wins Second in "Strength in Glass" Essay

Julie Heffernan

by George Zamora

SOCORRO, N.M., July 27, 2007 – New Mexico Tech graduate student Julie Heffernan was still an undergraduate student at the research university when a severe hailstorm devastated the campus and surrounding town of Socorro on October 5, 2004.

Hailstones the size of baseballs fell from the sky that day, leaving a long-lasting impression on all Socorro residents, including Heffernan, who currently is pursuing a master’s of science degree in materials engineering at New Mexico Tech.

In the aftermath of “The Great Hailstorm of ‘04,” millions of dollars of property damage were tallied up by area homeowners, businesses, and university administrators alike, most of that cost going to repairing or replacing pockmarked vehicles, windshields, windows and roofs.

So, when the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council (GMIC) recently sponsored a worldwide essay competition for college students, which posed the question “What new applications can you imagine for a stronger glass?” — Heffernan, inspired, she says, by the Socorro hailstorm, responded with a four-page essay, titled “Glass Roofs — Save Energy and Money.”

Heffernan’s submitted concept paper earned her second-place in the New, Innovative Uses for a Stronger Glass contest, which also was co-sponsored by the International Commission on Glass and the National Science Foundation’s International Materials Institute on New Functionality in Glasses.

Her second-place finish garnered Heffernan a $10,000 prize, along with an invitation to present her paper at the GMIC’s annual convention, which was held earlier this month in Paris, France.

With assistance and additional financial support provided to her by several New Mexico Tech administrative offices, academic departments and professors, Heffernan was able to travel to Paris to talk about her idea of using glass that is 50 times stronger than currently manufactured glass to make both clear and reflective-coated roof shingles — a roofing material that is capable of withstanding even a 100-year hailstorm.

The tough, waterproof glass panels, she wrote in her essay, would also be corrosion- and fire-resistant, while weighing less than traditional asphalt shingles.

“Glass panels could be manufactured as four-foot by eight-foot sheets, and could be easily and efficiently installed, saving both time and money,” Heffernan said.

Heffernan’s research work at New Mexico Tech involves using computer simulations of different polymers to understand how molecular structure influences a material’s viscosity and glass transition point, which helped her with the more technical aspects of her award-winning essay.

However, it was her past experience helping re-shingle a roof that further inspired Heffernan to consider using glass roofs to save energy and money.

The Alamogordo native expects to finish up her graduate studies at New Mexico Tech this coming fall, and is planning on then starting her professional career at the Boeing Corporation facility in Albuquerque.