In 2009, WRI recognizes three employees, Mike Harnsberger, John Schabron, and Janet Wolf, for passing the 25-year mark with the Institute. Western Research Institute was established in 1983, though its history as a federal laboratory for the U. S. Department of Energy, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Bureau of Mines goes back to 1924. Long-time and new employees are integral to WRI’s vitality and continuing contributions in the fields of energy, environment and highway materials.
Since joining WRI in February 1984, Principal Scientist Michael Harnsberger has kept his eye on the road. Armed with a chemistry degree from the University of Wyoming, Mike joined a small team that studied how the physical properties of highway materials affect pavement performance over time.
“What we didn’t have in the early days was a defined historical record over the entire lifecycle of the road.” Highway research at WRI expanded in 1988 with the Strategic Highway Research program and has continued with the Fundamental Properties of Highways Programs. Mike says he began pushing for more field work in 1992.
“To learn what chemical paradigms drive performance, we need to be able to make direct comparisons of different pavements in the same location under different climate and loading conditions.”
Twenty-five years later, the focus of Mike’s work remains the same. Today, he heads the Asphalt Research Consortium, an alliance of top highway research organizations conducting coordinated highway materials research under the auspices of the Federal Highway Administration.
The progress of the asphalt materials group has expanded to both the field scale and the nano scale. “We’re doing things now, we could only imagine 25 years ago,” Mike says. “It’s always been fun and interesting.”
Principal Scientist John Schabron worked for Phillips Petroleum Research and Development in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, before joining WRI in February 1984. “Working for a smaller organization, I’ve felt that I’ve been able to have a greater impact on the success of the company,” he says. Today, John heads the Analytical Technologies Group at WRI and manages projects in environmental analysis, petroleum residua upgrading, and product forensics.
Major oil companies have recognized the value of his heavy oil research by providing annual cash donations since 1998. He has managed projects in cooperation with major corporations, the EPA and the Electric Power Research Institute. With the EPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), John is working to develop the NIST traceability protocol for mercury continuous emissions monitors for coal-fired power plants.
John is a prolific developer of new technologies for fossil fuel characterization and environmental field analysis, a reviewer for several leading journals, and a member of the editorial board of Dekker Encyclopedia of Petroleum and Refining Science. He also organizes symposia for the national American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Canadian National Centre for Upgrading Technology.
In her laboratory, Master Technician Janet Wolf extracts asphalt from road core samples. The samples come from state transportation departments that have had roads fail unexpectedly and from the WRI monitored evaluation sites where WRI is following the performance of transportation materials under various conditions over time. Also, as WRI develops quick tests for predicting long-term performance of asphalts, Janet prepares the laboratory-aged samples for oxidative testing.
Janet, who earned her B.S. in microbiology from the University of Wyoming, claims a genuine fondness for the elements of her job. “I love science,” she says. “I enjoy the solitude of the laboratory, the instruments of inquiry, and the black, sticky asphalt material.”
She first worked at a previous iteration of WRI in 1975. She took three years off when her two children were young then returned in October 1984. With the advent of the Federal Highway Administration Strategic Highway Research Program, Janet joined the Transportation Technology group in 1988. In addition to working as a technician at WRI, Janet owned and ran Spur Ridge Equestrian Center for nine years.
“I think my greatest accomplishment has been instilling the love of science in my children. As adults, they’ve both gone into scientific careers.”