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Past Winner
2006 NSERC Award of Excellence

John Jonas

Henry Birks Emeritus Professor of Metallurgy

McGill University

John Jonas
John Jonas

"There are as many ways of making steel as there are stars in the solar system," says metallurgical engineer Dr. John Jonas, and only a small fraction of these have been tried. During four decades of research into the challenges of making better steel for such applications as cars and pipelines, Dr. Jonas has become a world leader in high-temperature deformation of metals and has pioneered innovations that are widely used by steel manufacturers.

The quest for stronger and more formable steel for cars – while keeping in mind the need to reduce weight for fuel economy and environmental concerns – is just one area of research interest for Dr. Jonas, Henry Birks Emeritus Professor of Metallurgy at McGill University.

"Current cars weigh half as much as those driven by our parents and can be fashioned into more complex shapes," he says. Current research into sheet metal involves ongoing efforts to reduce the weight of cars. "This has to do with fuel economy and the environment and is being carried out on magnesium alloys, as the latter are only one-third to one-quarter as dense as steel," he explains. One problem, however, is that magnesium alloys are "notoriously difficult to form." Dr. Jonas and his research associates are collaborating with scientists from other institutions to find ways to form structural components for cars of the future.

Innovations resulting from research in the laboratory aren't confined to steel used in automobiles. Research by Dr. Jonas has led to the production of much tougher, more fracture-resistant steels for oil and gas pipelines. This is an important development because conventional steels are quite brittle at winter temperatures in northern Canada.

His principal achievements have involved understanding what happens to steel in rolling mills when it is travelling along at 100 km/h, at temperatures between 1000°C and 1200°C. Under these conditions, it is virtually impossible to make direct measurements of the steel. However, the high-temperature characteristics of steel differ from those at room temperature, so the evidence available after the steel has cooled down is not particularly useful.

Research by Dr. Jonas has led to several indirect methods involving laboratory simulations on miniature samples that permit microstructural changes such as recrystallization and precipitation to be observed. The models that have been developed enable steel companies worldwide to produce better products and control their processes with greater precision.

While being processed in a rolling mill, steel passes from its high temperature to its low temperature form or "phase" in a few seconds. Dr. Jonas explains that this has led to considerable controversy regarding the ideal geometric or "orientation" relations linking the two phases. In order to clarify this problem, his research studies the nature of the high-temperature-to-low-temperature conversion or "transformation" behaviour of metallic meteorites, which cool at rates of 1°C to 10°C per million years or under near-equilibrium conditions.

"In these cases, individual atoms have the time and leisure to adopt the lowest energy configuration during the change," Dr. Jonas says. "Thus our meteorite studies have enabled us to clear up a number of issues related to the cooling behaviour of steels at much higher rates, as in commercial mills."

His breakthrough studies have altered the understanding of thermomechanical processing and the way in which steel companies design and analyse rolling schedules. His highly original work provides insights into fundamental aspects of metal physics and physical metallurgy while also addressing practical problems of importance to the Canadian and international metals-processing industry. His familiarity with technological challenges and issues has allowed him to focus on the fundamental problems that need to be researched and explored.

Dr. Jonas wonders what the materials of the future will look like, how they will be prepared and what remains to be learned about steel or aluminum. This leads him to quote Albert Einstein, who was asked a somewhat similar question and said: "When the radius of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of ignorance."

His research is characterized by involving significant components of science as well as engineering. The science part has been concerned with discovering more about the laws of nature, while the engineering part uses new knowledge to make better products in more efficient ways. These activities happen concurrently and there is no doubt that the one nourishes the other, he observes.

"I sometimes imagine that when the first flying saucer lands on earth, I'll be able to requisition a piece so that I can find out how they are made. Until then, though, we material scientists will continue to have to find ways of making steels and other metals stronger and more formable."


Dr. Jonas has used exceptional creativity, physical insight and intellectual rigour to make pioneering contributions in thermomechanical processing that have transformed the international steelmaking industry. His close association with the Canadian industry has led to numerous solutions to practical problems, which have led in turn to five sets of international patents. As one of the most accomplished researchers in his field, his 670 research publications have attracted more than 8,000 citations.

While actively pursuing research since 1960, Dr. Jonas has been a dedicated mentor and teacher. As a highly successful motivator of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, he has helped train more than 200 highly qualified personnel.

His research achievements include clarifying the characteristics of dynamic and post-dynamic recrystallization (softening mechanisms that play a role during steel rolling); the kinetics of carbonitride precipitation (a key phenomenon that makes it possible to produce steels of high- fracture toughness used for pipelines in Canada's North); and the mechanics of torsion testing (a testing method used to simulate rolling). As well, his groundbreaking research includes the physical simulation and mathematical modelling of rolling; plastic instability and flow localization; the modelling of deformation, transformation and recrystallization textures; and the physical metallurgy of warm rolling and dynamic strain aging.

His many contributions and services to the profession have earned him more than 40 prizes and honours. In Canada, these include the Orders of Canada and Quebec, the Killam Prize for Engineering, the Prix Marie-Victorin and the Alcan and Dofasco Awards. Internationally, he has received the Grande (Portevin-LeChatelier) and Silver (Réaumur) Medals of the Société Française de Métallurgie et de Matériaux, and Honorary Membership in the Indian Institute of Metals – the only Canadian to be so honoured. He has received a Silver (Yukawa) and two Bronze (Sawamura) Medals from the Iron and Steel Institute of Japan, where he is an Honorary Member. Dr. Jonas was awarded the Barrett Silver Medal of the American Society for Materials and the Hunt Silver Medal of the Iron and Steel Society in the U.S., as well the Hatchett Award from the Institute of Materials in the United Kingdom. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of four other professional bodies.

Biographical Overview

Dr. Jonas was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1932. He received his B.Eng. (Metallurgical Engineering) from McGill University in 1954 and his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1960. From 1960 to 1965, he was Assistant Professor, Metallurgical Engineering, at McGill and then Associate Professor, 1965 to 1973, and Professor, 1973 to 1985. Also at McGill, he was Associate Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, 1971 to 1975; the Canadian Steel Industry Research Association/NSERC Professor of Steel Processing, 1985 to 1996; Co-Director, McGill Metals Processing Centre, 1990 to 1999; and the Birks Professor of Metallurgy since 1992.