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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

Students forge ahead in blacksmithing competition

Francesca Nemati / Thresher

By Amy Li     1/16/24 9:36pm

Jackson Hughes, Nathan Yun, George Lyu, Matt Moore and Balla Sanogo forged a sword to enter the Bladesmithing Competition hosted by the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society for their capstone projects.

The sword features a high carbon steel blade, an aluminum owl head for the pommel, a handle made from epoxy resin embedded with carbon fiber and aluminum wings for the hand guard. Lyu, a Will Rice College senior, said that many of these features were designed as a homage to Rice’s mascot and/or the materials science and nanoengineering  department’s history with carbon-related research.

“One thing that was consistent through the brainstorming was having a strong sense of Rice pride,” Lyu said. “A lot of those aesthetic choices were just because we wanted to bring out the Rice elements for it.”

Participating in the biennial competition is offered as a senior design project by the MSNE department. This is the first year that multiple departments were represented in the sword forging team, according to Ricardo Zednik, a professor in the practice for the MSNE department and one of the team’s two faculty advisors.

“This year, MSNE is doing its capstone in collaboration with other engineering departments (in coordination with the [Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen]),” Zednik wrote in an email to the Thresher. “This has allowed students from multiple departments (each registered in their own capstone) to come to work on this project together, thereby enhancing the creativity and complexity of the design. It also better prepares students to work in interdisciplinary teams in their future careers.”

According to Yun, a Will Rice senior majoring in mechanical engineering, having multiple departments represented on the team aided the success of their project.

“The MSNE students knew really well how to handle a blade, how to hit it, how to quench it, what we wanted to quench it in or how to heat treat and stuff like that,” Yun said. “I’m like, ‘How do you know that?’ And they’re like, ‘We spent the last four years studying this.’

“The [mechanical engineers] definitely showed our strength once we were in the machine shop,” he added.

Lyu, who is majoring in operations research, said he had previous experience with casting, a manufacturing process where liquid metal is poured into a mold.

“I’ve been casting for 12 years, so it was a cool opportunity to get to cast on campus,” Lyu said. “I’ve been, since [Orientation]Week of my freshman year, trying to get permission to handle liquid metals for artistic purposes … I wanted an excuse to work with metal again.”

Hughes, a McMurtry College senior and MSNE major, also had previous experience working with metal on a farm.

Though Yun hasn’t previously worked with metal, he said he has watched YouTube videos by people who do.

“I personally watch [the channel] ‘Man at Arms’ a lot, especially when I was younger, because they make swords from video games,” Yun said. “It was really cool to actually get that sort of experience because I don’t think many other people, aside from people in the trade, are going to say that they were able to forge a sword by themselves.”

According to Zednik, the team was largely given creative freedom over their project, though they did face technical limitations.

“I don’t want to be breathing down their necks,” Zednik said in an interview with the Thresher. “It is an interesting project in a sense that part of the suffering, so to speak, is for them to have to deal with those logistical challenges, since it is kind of a simulated engineering exercise … It’s just like if you were in a company and you wanted to design a new product, you have to figure out how to make it, where to make it, etc.”

Finding a suitable on-campus space to forge the sword was one of the largest logistical difficulties, according to Zednik. Though the team began looking for a space in early September, they weren’t able to secure one until reaching out to the Moody Center for the Arts in early November. The team and Zednik expressed their gratitude to Robert Purvis at the Moody Center for his help with the project.

The team also faced some constraints because of the limitations of on-campus equipment, according to Yun.

“A lot of schools that are really big on this will have really powerful equipment that takes up a whole room, and you can’t move it ever. But Rice doesn’t have that,” Yun said. “We had to actually hit [the sword] with a hammer the whole time. So it took a lot of time, and it definitely constrained what we could do.”

Despite their difficulties, the team was able to complete the sword in time.

“It was really heartwarming to see everyone come together in the last weeks of the semester,” Yun said.

Yun mentioned that the actual process of forging the sword was a lot less daunting than he’d initially anticipated. Yun said sophomores hoping to work on Rice’s next submission to the Bladesmithing Competition should look for the opportunity at the senior design project fair in spring of junior year or fall of senior year, depending on their major.

“One of my biggest takeaways was that it’s a lot easier to try something new than I thought it was,” Yun said. “I had originally signed up for the project because I thought it was cool, but then the more I thought about it, the more I was like, ‘I’ve never done this before, are we going to be able to do this?’ But it turns out just by doing research, asking questions, asking experts, asking for help, it became really easy. And we got an incredible result.”

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