Black Inventors: Thomas Mensah

25 Mar

Thomas Mensah
Thomas Mensah was born in Kumasi, Ghana in 1950. His father, J.K. Mensah, was a businessman who shipped cocoa products to chocolate manufacturers in France. Thomas was an exceptionally bright child, learning to read newspapers at an early age and becoming fluent in French. As a child, he often conversed in French with his father’s business associates. He went on to twice win the National Competition in France in 1968 and 1970.



Thomas received his early education at the exclusive Adisadel College boys school in Cape Coast. An excellent student, particularly in science and math, he received a scholarship to study chemical engineering at the University of Science and Technology Kumasi, Ghana. An honors student, he graduated in 1974 and was awarded a fellowship from the French government to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Science and Technology in Montpelier, France (USTL). While enrolled at USTL, he took part in a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received a certificate in Modeling and Simulation of Chemical Processes from the university in 1977. A year later, he graduated from USTL with a PhD.

In 1980, Thomas travelled to the United States where he took a job with Air Product and Chemicals in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was a research engineer in the chemical group division. One of his projects was to observe the mixing process in the Polyvinyl Alcohol Process Improvement Division. The process included injecting PVAC ( a polymer having a high resistance to to flow) with a catalyst. Inside of a thin film reactor which used a moving blade system. The resulting mixture would end up on a moving belt where it would cure into a white slab of Polyvinyl Alcohol, later cut into smaller pieces. A problem occurred when the mixture was of poor quality, as the resulting polyvinyl acetate did not cure properly, resulting in an usable product (and often causing a shutdown of the manufacturing process.

Mensah, after long research and an innovative use of high-tech video equipment was able to determine that when the centers of the vortices during the mixture process often trapped poorly mixed reactants , allowing them to proceed onto the moving belt. Thomas solved this by altering the blade configuration in the mixing process (as well as altering the notch depth). This redesign of the high speed thin film industrial mixers produced a much purer blend, thus improving the efficiency of the process and diminishing the delays which often shut down the manufacturing plant. He was rewarded by winning second prize in a prestigious research competition.
In 1983 he joined Corning Glass Works in Corning, New York as an engineer. He was brought on to help solve efficiency problems in the Corning Fiber Optic manufacturing process. Fiber optics refers to the design and application of optical fiber. Optical fibers refers to glass or plastic fiber through which light travels, usually carrying information. Fiber optics wires (or cables) are more efficient conductors of communication material than metal wire. Unfortunately, at that time it was difficult to increase the production of fiber optical material because the delicate glass fibers would break very easily if the production speed was increased. Thus, in the drawing and coating phase, the process was limited to producing only two meters per second of fiber optic stand.

Mensah saw that during the coating phase, bubbles were being trapped on the coating surface during the curing process. This caused inefficient losses of data. Using his knowledge of boundary layer theory, he solved this problem by injecting carbon dioxide gas near the boundary layer during the high speed coating process. This eliminated the bubbles from forming. He also was able to increase the strength of the glass allowing the manufacturing process to increase to 20 feet per send, a ten-fold improvement. He was awarded patents for each of these improvements along with two other patents for additional work.

In 1986, Thomas moved on to the AT&T Bell Laboratories in Georgia. At Bell he focused his attention on creating missile systems which utilized fiber optics for their guidance systems. In these systems, a small camera in the nose of the missile delivered images of a target through the fiber optic wires to the pilot who could then lock onto the target and hit them with extreme accuracy and precision. Dr. Mensah and his colleagues developed missiles that could use the fiber optic technology while traveling at MACH 1 (the speed of sound).

In addition to his work with fiber optics, Mensah found success in other areas of science. He has created superconductors for space communication, designed a system for creating solid state rechargeable cell phone batteries, developed new filament wound composite structures to be used to provide a light replacement for tank gun barrels among many other inventions. He would eventually become the Founder of georgia Aerospace which manufactured specialized composite structures for stealth aircraft.

In almost every aspect of his career,Thomas Mensah has met with enormous success on projects that have great historical significance. he has worked for private industry as well as for the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense and has been awarded seven patents. He has also received awards and recognition from the high tech community including the Corning Glass Works Industrial Outstanding Contributor Award for Innovation in Fiber Optics (1985), AT&T Bell Laboratories High Performance Award (1988), and the AIChE William Grimes Award for Excellence in Chemical Engineering (2007). He serves as a great model of turning great ambition into great success.



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