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Martin, Steve Warthen

Published onOct 01, 2021
Martin, Steve Warthen

(July 21, 1958 - )

Quick Facts

Steve Warthen Martin, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is a widely-respected researcher in glass and battery materials.


Martin was born July 21, 1958 in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, to Donald Clark Martin, a home builder, and Mary Sonya Martin, a homemaker and nurse’s assistant.

As a young man, Martin was an enthusiastic explorer of nature, spending many hours hiking, hunting, fishing, and exploring the woods, rivers, and prairies around his rural Mt. Vernon home. That curiosity took a decided turn to chemistry and materials when his seventh-grade science teacher left a container of metallic sodium in the sink of the classroom lab. Over the weekend, the leaky faucet dripped water directly in to the container, causing an explosion that destroyed the lab bench and the lighting above. Rather than cancel class, his teacher used the devastated classroom to describe the power of chemical reactions and the nature of materials.

Martin received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, in 1980, receiving the Outstanding Senior in Chemistry Award from the American Institute of Chemists. While at his student job as the chemistry librarian, he came upon an article in the Journal of Physical Chemistry by Professor Austen Angell at Purdue University describing how a solid glass could be used to increase the energy output from batteries. From then on, Martin was hooked. He achieved his PhD in physical chemistry by working with Angell at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1986 on these new types of glasses. As a graduate student, he won a National Science Foundation Graduate Student International Travel award and the Outstanding Chemistry Graduate Teaching Assistant award from Purdue. His research for his doctorate was on the study Na+ ion conductivity of sodium borate glasses over wide ranges of composition.

In 1986, Martin directly joined the faculty of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Iowa State University and at the same time was appointed an associate scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.

After coming to ISU, he extended his research into the area of the chemistry of glasses, developing the broad area of ionic glasses based upon the element sulfur into a new field of research. Nearly all of the research on these so-called “sulfide” glasses up to that point had concentrated on sulfide glasses that were built from covalent chemical bonding rather than ionic chemical bonding. Martin won his first NSF grant in 1988, the first ever awarded to a faculty member in the MSE department at Iowa State, to explore ionic sulfide glasses that were analogous to the well-known common silicate glasses.

For many years, Martin collaborated with Ferdinando Borsa, emeritus professor in Iowa State’s department of physics, to pioneer the combined use of nuclear magnetic resonance and electrical conductivity measurements to examine the speed at which alkali ions, such as Li+, move inside these ionic glasses. Such lithium-ion conducting glasses are now being used in new types of lithium batteries. Martin has expanded these measurements in collaboration with Professor Roland Bohmer in Darmstadt, Germany, to study the use of sodium conducting glasses in sodium batteries. These studies contribute to the development of battery technology needed for Iowa’s growing generation of wind energy.

Martin’s initial curiosity in the power of sodium chemistry has come full circle, and he and his students are now researching ways to safely harness that power to help Iowa’s renewable energy economy. This led him to develop a large international collaboration between three universities in the U.S. and four universities in Europe to develop a new type of solid-state battery separator to be used instead of the caustic and dangerous lead acid liquid separator used in common lead-acid batteries. These new solid-state separator glasses may help unlock the potential of safe but energy dense all solid-state batteries.

In addition to his work on new sodium batteries for wind energy storage, Martin and his team also researched the development of new high Li+ ion based glasses so they can be used in new batteries based upon lithium and sulfur—a safer, cheaper, more reliable and more energy dense improvement on traditional lithium-ion battery technology.

When not in the classroom or the research laboratory, Martin serves as a faculty adviser to the ISU Gaffers Guild, a club that trains students in the art and science of glass blowing. Martin enjoys using the glass studio as a way to interest young learners in science, the way that sodium explosion so many years ago caught his interest.

In 1995, Martin was awarded an R&D 100 award for his development of a new class of ultra-low expansion optical fibers for laser surgery.

The MSE department has recognized Martin for his dedication to research and teaching through multiple awards. In 2003, he was awarded the department’s Excellence in Service Award. In 2005, he was awarded the Excellence in Research award, and in 2009, he received the Excellence in Teaching award. To date (2013), he is the only faculty member to have won all three.

He was named a University Professor in 2006 for his work in developing university-wide programs in undergraduate research and was named an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering in 2009 for his international leadership and recognition in research in glass. He is one of only two professors in the 155-year history of Iowa State University to be awarded both distinctions.

In 2002, Martin was elevated to the rank of Fellow of the American Ceramic Society in the Glass and Optical Materials. In 2009, he was awarded the George W. Morey Award in Glass Science from the Glass and Optical Materials Division (GOMD) of the American Ceramic Society, the highest award of the GOMD.

Selected Sources

MES Faculty webpage:

Glass and Optical Materials, Iowa State:

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