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David Wallace, like his blond mullet hairstyle, was a good mixture of business and party as he intrigued his audience on Monday afternoon.
Wallace, assistant clinical professor and manager of the Paul B. Jacob High Voltage Laboratory at Mississippi State University, spoke to the Starkville Rotary Club about the work he and his students do at the largest university-led high voltage lab on the continent.
“The mission of my lab is to literally blow stuff up,” Wallace said. “For me, electricity is the lifeblood of the nation. It runs everything, so we ensure everything works.”
The lab began in Patterson Engineering Building in 1950, but when Simrall Electrical Engineering Building was constructed in 1977 specifically for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at MSU, the high voltage lab found a permanent home.
Wallace and his students test products for various industries from airlines to electric companies, and they even work with the Department of Defense. He said the mission is to test products’ durability, sometimes under extreme conditions.
To simulate different environments, the lab contains various chambers such as a salt fog chamber, thermal chambers with temperature changes, a UV-A chamber and a UV-B chamber.
It also has lightning testing capabilities, and Wallace and his students have worked with Delta Airlines to see how the tail of a plane will withstand lightning. Because of this, it has been used for the “Strange Evidence” series on Science Channel and The Weather Channel.
“Whenever these things go off, it’s like an explosion happening in the lab — very loud, very bright flash,” Wallace said. “So, it’s a lot of fun. We do a lot of studies for the Air Force, the Army, the Navy. We’ve tested wind turbines to see how they’ll withstand lightning.”
Wallace said he encourages his students to challenge what he teaches them because it pushes them to think beyond existing parameters. One idea he teaches — that he jokingly said gets him in trouble with the MSU Department of Physics — is that he believes there could be something that travels faster than the speed of light.
“When you go back to the 1800s, there was a theory that man would never go faster than 60 miles per hour because the human body couldn’t take it, but I did 100 in a Mustang,” Wallace said, whispering the last part. “… My problem with the statement of, ‘you will never break the speed of light,’ is that word ‘never.’ If you say ‘never,’ it’s a constraint. If you can never do something, you don’t even think about it. I want students to challenge everything I teach them because as our knowledge grows, science grows. If we’re constrained to one ideal, there’s no growth.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wallace and his students worked with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to convert 565 battery-operated ventilators to wall-powered. After completing the conversions, Mississippi Highway Patrol came to get the improved units and took them to University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“It was a very fun project,” Wallace said. “Being able to put your engineering to use and see it go out and do something good — that’s what I love about engineering. You can see the effects it has and how it can change people’s lives.”
Wallace said he became an electrical engineer because he was inspired by two people: Scotty on Star Trek and Nikola Tesla. He said he liked figuring out how things, like the telephone, work and wanted to be able to do the impossible like his two inspirations.
“I tell my students it’s not a passion for me; it’s a religion,” Wallace said. “The higher the voltage gets in that lab, the happier I get in that lab.”
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