Low Carbon Manufacturing

Dr. Daniel Cooper emulates his childhood hero to make impactful contributions to engineering, but now with a close eye on reducing environmental impacts

His love of engineering began cultivating on his family’s dairy farm on the outskirts of Bradford, England. The West Yorkshire city was an international center of textile manufacturing, once known as the wool capital of the world. 

For Professor Daniel Cooper, it was a stage for milking his engineering curiosity.

“On the farm, the equipment was decades old and the barns were built in 1600,” he said. “I first became interested in how things work by helping to fix the equipment and maintain the buildings.”

His home city’s history also fired his interest in manufacturing and ultimately, environmental sustainability.

“Bradford brims with the legacy of grand Victorian engineering with towering mill chimneys and stone viaducts,” he said. “It was clear how manufacturing had transformed the area from a rural market town to a booming city, but also how it could affect the environment. My Dad would tell me stories of his youth when the chimneys still smoked and the smog would stop the buses from running. I suppose I was always interested in how things work from the mechanics of a machine to how that machine then affects society.” 

His parents supported his thirst for engineering without adding pressure to succeed. 

“They always encouraged me to do well in school but with no particular expectations,” he said. “I was always fascinated by how engineering changes society.”

Kingdom Crusade

As an exemplary student, Dr. Cooper was fascinated by Isaambard Kingdom Brunel, an English civil engineer who is considered one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history. 

Brunel built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships, including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, and numerous important bridges and tunnels. His designs revolutionized public transport and modern engineering.

“He was my inspiration as a child and opened my eyes to the tremendous social impact you can have as an engineer. He’s even the reason we have time zones,” Dr. Cooper chuckled.

Challenging the Norm

Today, Dr. Cooper is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering (ME), lead for ME’s Resourceful Manufacturing and Design Lab (ReMaDe), conducting research on how industry can address its climate change problem, and a member of ISD program committees for GAME and Manufacturing. “Around one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions are released by industry. We can not address climate change without reducing these emissions.” Working alongside ISD graduate students, he identifies significant opportunities to cut emissions by conducting large scale analyses on processes, factories, and material supply chains, and then pursuing a rigorous technical analysis in order to capitalize on the opportunities.

Talk with Dr. Cooper for a few minutes and he quickly poses critical industry related questions, such as 

  • “Can we be more efficient in how we process materials in manufacturing and then use them in society?”
  • “What are the least cost pathways for decarbonizing key engineering systems such as the steel industry or U.S. transport?”
  • “How can we design products and reverse supply chains to recycle difficult materials such as wrought alloys and many plastics?”
  • “Can we redesign our manufacturing systems to accommodate more recycled material?”
  • “How can we quantify and reduce uncertainties so that we can make more informed and confident decisions to reduce environmental impacts?” 

Dr. Cooper is certainly enjoying taking on these challenging questions. “Take the aluminum sheet metal that you see in many modern cars, for example,” he said. “The difficulty with high-value recycling there is essentially mixing, contamination of those materials with other aluminum alloys and fragments from other parts of your vehicle, say steel rivets or copper wiring. Addressing this problem takes us to examining system dynamics, metallurgy, plasticity, product design, and separation and refining processes. I love that I have a job where I can examine all of these aspects, go deep where I have expertise, and elsewhere collaborate with world-leading experts.”

Focused on Material Efficiency 

Dr. Cooper earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge and worked as a postdoctoral scholar in the Laboratory for Manufacturing Productivity at MIT. His scholarly research interests focused on increasing industry’s material efficiency, which is the provision of global materially intensive services (transport, buildings etc.) using less material production from naturally occurring resources, including new low-carbon recycling technologies for aluminum process scrap, sheet metal forming processes, extending the lifespan of products, and the potential to reuse components at product end-of-life.

For Dr. Cooper, the University of Cambridge was a beautiful place to broaden his horizons and meet with leaders in his field. “I owe a huge debt to my mentors at Cambridge, MIT, and now here at Michigan,” he said. After his graduate and postdoctoral work was completed, he chose to work at the University of Michigan. 

“Michigan hit the bullseye in terms of what I wanted to do, the quality and diverse expertise of the students and colleagues, and the support to fulfill your potential from the college,” he said. 

Alignment with ISD

Dr. Cooper said ISD’s integrative philosophy fully aligns with his convergent research program. 

“ISD’s Global Automotive Manufacturing Engineering program gives students a breadth and depth of understanding in a variety of areas that are then implemented in an industry research project that delivers direct value to their company,” he said. 

Dr. Cooper has advised multiple ISD Manufacturing Engineering Capstone projects. “It’s been wonderful to work with talented ISD students such as Ben Corson and Evan Yoder Bell on their Capstone projects. These industry-relevant team projects in manufacturing deliver a great experience for the students, are fascinating for the faculty advisors, and deliver real value-added to the industry sponsor. It’s great to see the alumni embark on stellar careers at leading companies such as Blue Origin and General Motors,” he said. Elsewhere, Dr. Cooper helps to teach a new ISD course on Smart Additive Manufacturing. “I applaud ISD for giving students a course that covers both the foundations of additive manufacturing science and engineering and also contextualizes that knowledge by examining the whole life cycle impacts of additive and conventionally manufactured products. Students taking this additive manufacturing class will likely become strategic leaders in the field.”

A Boost to Recycling

In a recent project that highlights Dr. Cooper’s approach, he is collaborating with industry, trade associations, and a national lab to develop easier and more cost-effective ways to make recyclable lightweight automotive sheet metals.

“We already recycle many of the materials that are going into new vehicles, but we don’t do it well,” Dr. Cooper said. “It requires putting the steel and aluminum into electric-arc or gas-fired furnaces, and then casting new metal.”

Having mixed substances in a furnace can lower the quality of the recycled end product, which is why this process is often called downcycling. For example, recycled steel can crack during manufacturing if it contains as little as .1% of copper. Typically, the recycled metal ends up in applications with low-performance requirements such as aluminum casting and steel reinforcing bars.

Dr. Cooper and other U-M engineers are leading the U.S. Department of Energy-backed project focused on new material and vehicle lifecycle system designs. 

Called “The Clean Sheet Project,” the effort seeks to develop new design tools and establish best practices for material producers and carmakers to take recycling into account from start to finish in production. 

“Aluminum is known for being tricky to recycle without a loss of performance,” Dr. Cooper said. “Switching to EVs means even greater demand for high-quality aluminum and a loss of the internal combustion engine and transmission market that currently uses a lot of the low-quality recycled metal.”

Emphasizing Integrative

Dr. Cooper plans to help lead a revolution in how manufacturing is viewed, taught and learned. 

“There are a lot of great manufacturing engineering classes today,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity to go even further in teaching manufacturing as an integrative field, emphasizing not only the technical aspects of manufacturing but also the creativity and tremendous social impact of the field.” 

On the research side, there are opportunities to create new technologies and develop more effective strategies in manufacturing through an integrative mindset. 

“Let’s put rocket boosters on developing solutions to industrial decarbonization,” Dr. Cooper said. “I want to continue and expand, bringing together a diverse consortium of material producers, manufacturers, and recyclers with a cross-university team of engineers, economists, industrial ecologists and others to address the greatest challenges to achieving sustainable engineering systems.”

Award Winning

For his efforts, Dr. Cooper was the recipient of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award. This award recognizes manufacturing engineers who have made exceptional contributions and accomplishments in the manufacturing industry. 

To achieve his goals, Dr. Cooper intends to continue collaborating with industry and his U-M colleagues.

“We have a critical mass of very talented experts at the University of Michigan working in areas around industrial sustainability,” he said. “We’re doing great work now and I look forward to continuing to grow our collective impact in the future.”