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Robert Balluffi, materials science professor, dies at 98

Robert W. Balluffi, a retired professor of materials science and engineering who spent 27 years at Cornell, died Dec. 8 at his home in Ithaca, New York. He was 98 years old.

Robert Balluffi was renowned for his expertise and publications in a broad range of topics in materials science and engineering. He was also a watercolor artist, spending many of his retirement years painting, including the work in this photo.

Balluffi arrived at Cornell in 1964 and established a research program on radiation damage, the degrading effect radiation can have on materials, and did extensive studies into grain boundaries, key to developing new metal alloys. He was renowned for both his expertise and publications in a broad range of topics, including crystal defects, solid-state diffusion and crystalline interfaces, according to an obituary from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Balluffi was a professor emeritus.

Balluffi published about 200 scientific papers and three textbooks, including the broadly-used “Kinetics of Materials.” His work gained him various honors, including membership in the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences.

After serving as a faculty member at MIT, he returned to Cornell from 2004 to 2017, according to an obituary published by his family. Even after his retirement, Balluffi was a presence on the Ithaca campus and celebrated his 98th birthday with a special seminar hosted by Cornell’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“Bob had a unique ability to inspire others to become excellent researchers by example,” said Dieter Ast, Ph.D. ’69, a former graduate student of Balluffi’s who is now a professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Cornell. “During his time at Cornell, the university became a world center in research involving what happens to metals in nuclear reactors.”

Another student of Balluffi’s is James Hwang, Ph.D. ’78, who is now a research professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell.

“Bob was a man of few words and taught by example. I learned from Bob the highest standard and integrity in research,” said Hwang, who added that Balluffi had many hobbies. “I was lucky to be able to visit him often during his final years and he proudly showed me his abstract paintings with colored squares."

Ast said Balluffi spent much of his time writing in the Cornell Library, and that Balluffi once quipped that “writing books is the only thing that keeps me sane.” Ast added that Balluffi loved Ithaca and also enjoyed sailing his 26-foot sailboat on Cayuga Lake.

Balluffi is survived by his children, Andrew, Barbara and Frank, and stepchildren, Stephen, Gail and Robert.

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