The Israeli Who Revolutionized Aircraft, Vehicles and ... Tennis Rackets

The Danzig-born engineer was a leader in the field of micromechanics, his groundbreaking work creating a light but extremely durable material used today in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

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Prof. Zvi Hashin during the Israel Prize ceremony in 2007.
Prof. Zvi Hashin during the Israel Prize ceremony in 2007.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Prof. Zvi Hashin, who died in October, was one of the world’s leading experts on composite materials. The scientific aspects of his work are not easily explained, but his achievements in finding practical applications for complex materials played a key role in modern manufacturing processes.

Compounds Hashin pioneered are used across many fields of engineering – from marine and vehicle manufacture to space vehicles and aviation projects like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The materials are also vital in more mundane products like tennis racquets, golf clubs and other sports accessories.

The titles and awards Hashin received attest to how revolutionary his work was. For example, his joint work with physicist Shmuel Shtrikman on calculating the elasticity of composite materials was hailed as one of the 100 most important mechanics projects of the 20th century.

Composite materials are an engineered combination of light material like plastic or metal with other material, like fine carbon fibres. The result is a very light, extremely tough and durable material.

According to the Franklin website, Hashin “is universally recognized as the world’s preeminent authority in the micromechanics of composite materials.”

“When I started working in this field, composite materials were mainly a theoretical matter,” Hashin is quoted as saying on the Israel Prize website. “They gradually became first degree engineering materials.”

As an international expert on the subject, Hashin worked for the U.S. Navy and Air Force, NASA and Rafael (the Israeli advanced defense systems company), and contributed to the development of the Lavi fighter aircraft in Israel in the 1970s and ’80s.

Hashin was born in the Free City of Danzig (today Gdansk, Poland), in June 1929. In 1936, he immigrated with his family to British Mandatory Palestine and settled in Haifa. After his military service, he wanted to study mathematics and physics. However, his father persuaded him to take up engineering, maintaining that this was a good way to make a living.

After studying at Haifa’s Technion with Prof. Markus Reiner, Hashin tried his hand at civilian engineering and in his PhD dissertation at the Sorbonne, Paris, developed techniques for strengthening bridges.

Later, at Harvard, he returned to composite materials and was given a professor’s post at the University of Pennsylvania, where he began working with a fellow Israeli, Shtrikman.

“Their work was such a great breakthrough that I see them as being years ahead of their time,” said Hashin’s friend, Prof. John Willis, of the University of Cambridge.

In 1973, Hashin set up a new department in the fledgling engineering faculty at Tel Aviv University – the department of solid mechanics, materials and structures – and ran it in its early years.

He continued to research and teach in the department until his retirement. In 2007, he was awarded the Israel Prize for his research in engineering. In 2012, he received the Benjamin Franklin medal from the Franklin Institute, the citation reading: “For groundbreaking contributions to the accurate analysis of composite materials, which have enabled practical engineering designs of lightweight composite structures, commonly used today in aerospace, marine, automotive and civil infrastructure.”

He was married to Tamar, a father of three children and a grandfather.

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