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Well Played: For Researcher Marie-Agathe Charpagne, Music And Metals Go Hand In Hand

Dorothy Pomerantz
January 23, 2019
The annual Ile-de-France piano competition can be a nerve-racking affair. Pianists from around the world converge on the 2,000-seat Salle Malesherbes auditorium in Maisons-Laffitte, a few miles northwest of Paris, to compete for the top prize.
But when Marie-Agathe Charpagne sat down to play “Apres une Lecture de Dante” by Franz Liszt, in 2016, she was perfectly composed. In front of an audience of her fellow competitors, her hands flew over the keys, always landing on the right notes, while her bare feet skimmed the pedals, giving added depth to the music flowing from the instrument.

Charpagne walked away that day with the third-place prize for amateur pianists. The reason she was competing in the amateur division? Piano is only part of her life. When she’s not playing, she’s doing research to help engineers better understand the mysteries of what happens to high-end metals called superalloys when they’re forced to perform in extreme conditions. “All along my life, it’s been science and music,” Charpagne says. “It’s a balance I need to have. I like them to be correlated.”

Whether it’s a new metal she needs to test or a new piece of music she must learn, Charpagne, 27, sees great harmony between her life in science and her life behind the keys. Both disciplines require her to do initial research to understand how others have approached a problem before her. Then she spends hours experimenting in the lab or practicing in her studio to come up with her own interpretation. Finally, she presents her work to hundreds of people at a concert or in a scientific paper.

This approach has paid off. While playing about 10 concerts around the world every year, Charpagne has also done important work on superalloys, special metals capable of withstanding extreme heat and stress — in particular, one called Rene 65, a special steel developed by GE and the advanced metals company Allegheny Technologies that’s used in LEAP jet engines.

The LEAP, built by CFM International, a joint venture between GE and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines, is a grand example of skill and engineering in its own right. With 3D-printed fuel nozzles and space-age ceramic composites, the engine — designed to power Airbus, Boeing and Comac jets — is 15 percent more fuel-efficient than previous CFM engines. The company has received orders valued at more than $236 billion, making it the bestselling engine in its history. Charpagne’s research focused on what happens to Rene 65 during the forging process — when the metal is heated up to 1,000 degrees Celsius so it can be molded into an engine part.

Charpagne discovered a previously unknown mechanism that occurs on a microscopic level during forging. Alloys are made of tiny crystals 10 to 100 microns big. For perspective, a human hair is roughly 75 microns thick. As the metals are heated and formed into parts, the crystals deform and new crystals grow to replace the old ones. In the past, metallurgists believed that certain particles present in the metals that help keep the crystals from growing too large did not change in the heating process. But Charpagne discovered that in reality, the particles do evolve as the alloy heats up and play an important role in the orientation of the crystals during the forging process. This new understanding of how the superalloy reacts to extreme heat and deformation on a microscopic scale has helped companies adapt their forging processes to make sure that the parts come out stronger and more heat-resistant. “Once a part is forged, it can be difficult to fix any undesirable feature,” Charpagne says. “We may have to throw it away and restart the process. So any new mechanism that is discovered is helpful in adapting the forging process.”

Top: Marie-Agathe Charpagne's two loves, metallurgy and music, may not seem related on the surface. But the postdoctoral researcher and concert pianist finds a symbiosis of sorts between her two passions, each of which fuels the other. "All along my life, it’s been science and music,” Charpagne says. “It’s a balance I need to have." Image credit: Marie-Agathe Charpagne.

This work is a long way from where Charpagne started in Bourges, France, a rural town about 70 miles south of Paris made up of half-timbered houses and Gothic architecture. “People there would tell me that women should not work and that there was no point in me going to work after high school because at some point I would get married and have children and my studies would be worthless,” Charpagne says.

But her parents — who both graduated only from high school — encouraged her to study. Young Charpagne was interested in architecture and building engineering, but she was also attracted to music, especially the work of Frederic Chopin. A shy child, she found that she could more easily express herself sitting behind a massive black piano. So at the age of 12, she signed up at her local conservatory. Virtuosos usually start playing at age 5, but she quickly progressed and graduated at 17.

From there, she continued on the parallel tracks of music and science. In 2010 she was accepted at the Ecole des Mines de Saint-Etienne, a mining engineering university located in central France. While at the school she also joined the local conservatory, where she would practice from 6 to 9 every night.

 width= In the past, long-haul routes like the Reykjavik-to-LA flight were served only by bigger aircraft like the Boeing 757 and Airbus A330, and even larger wide-body jets. But a new generation of fuel-efficient planes like the Airbus A321neo and Boeing’s 737 MAX family, which is exclusively powered by the LEAP engines, is now redrawing airline route maps. Image credit: WOW air.

In her second year, when she needed to choose a major, she was randomly assigned a small project in metallurgy. She knew instantly she had found her passion. “Metallurgy is at the intersection of physics and chemistry,” says Charpagne. “Just because we gather a lot of knowledge from other fields, some purists say it’s not real science. But it is!”

In 2013, Safran Aircraft Engines recruited Charpagne to work on her Ph.D. at the CEMEF Mines ParisTech research center, where she began studying Rene 65. This work put Charpagne at the intersection of pure research and industrial work — a spot she found she enjoyed. She would regularly update Safran on her research and worked with the company on practical applications around her studies.

At the same time, Charpagne remained devoted to her music. She committed to practicing two to three hours a day — training almost like an athlete would. That meant she played from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. on a keyboard in her room and then reported to her lab at 9 in the morning. She found that the more consistent she was with her playing, the more successful she was at her studies.

Both of her passions converged in 2016, when she finished her doctorate and was given the opportunity to present her research at a conference in Pittsburgh. There she met Professor Tresa Pollock, from the University of California, Santa Barbara, whom Charpagne calls “the goddess of superalloys.” During that same trip, Charpagne traveled to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where she played Debussy, Liszt and all Chopin’s Ballades at a concert series called Music in the Country. “I really fell in love with the [U.S.],” says Charpagne. “I was dreaming that I could work with Professor Pollock some day, but I didn’t dare to think it would come true.”

Today Charpagne is happily working on metallurgy at UC Santa Barbara. She’s investigating new ways to heat metals to higher temperatures because in jet engines, the higher engineers can push the temperature inside, the more energy they can extract from the heat and the less fuel the aircraft needs to burn. “There’s a technological gap when it comes to increasing the temperature,” Charpagne says. “This is going to be a very exciting area in the coming years.”

Her advice to other young women in her field? Never stop reaching. She says that’s what drove her as she pursued both her science and her music. “I was always dreaming,” she says. “And as soon as you achieve your dreams, you have to think about something bigger.”

 width= “I was always dreaming,” says Marie-Agathe Charpagne. “And as soon as you achieve your dreams, you have to think about something bigger.” Images courtesy of Marie-Agathe Charpagne.