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Prof. René Flükiger : a lifelong passion for applications
an interview by Anne Rougemont
His work has been acknowledged this month by an IEEE Award [read also here] and he is supposed to retire at the end of the month. But Prof. René Flükiger loves action and will continue part of his activities. He tells us about his achievements and projects.
Professor Flükiger, on September 19th you have received an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) Award for your work. Can you tell us a little bit more ?
Yes, this award acknowledges advances made in the field of superconducting wires and tapes, combining physics, crystallography and metallurgy. This work covers a series of high and low Tc compounds, but especially points out the Nb3Sn one. The results deal with the improvement of critical current in high magnetic fields. Researches included studies of non-equilibrium phase diagrams, the modification of microstructure at the nanoscale, as well as metallical distorsion at the industrial level.
We were especially interested in producing strong high magnetic fields in superconducting magnets ; the most current application nowadays is the NMR, which is crucial for fine analysis in chemistry, pharmacy and biogenetics. Future developments in our labs involve the use of very efficient Nb3Sb superconducting wires in the Tokamak coils of the European thermonuclear fusion project ITER, as well as in the high fields dipoles of the CERN.
You will officially be retired at the end of September 2005. What are your projects ?
In agreement with the University of Geneva, my activities within MaNEP will continue. These are linked to the measurements made in the Geneva High Magnetic Fields lab, using our 17T and 21T magnets. I will also continue my work with the lab that develops superconducting wires in collaboration with Bruker Biospin - the world leader in NMR systems in order to enlarge the panel of magnets dealing with magnetic fields that have not yet been reached.
Speaking of Bruker Biospin, you are the kingpin of this collaboration. What are the conditions for success in such a partnership with the industry ? And what have its highlights been until today ?
Mutual trust is essential. It has built since 8 years already, through continuous direct contacts. The results are very satisfying ; they are illustrated by the submission of four patents, the last one very recently. All are regarding the production of superconducting wires. We have sophisticated means that a firm alone cannot afford in order to develop new methods of production. Such breakthroughs give decisive boosts that improve the competitiveness of our industrial partners, and this is something I very much value. Our partners are very generous with us in return : in 2004, Bruker offered the University of Geneva a very powerful 21T prototype magnet. This all reflects my motto : today the improvement, and the cheaper fabrication of industrial products more than ever need efforts in fundamental physics, combined with a deep knowledge of production mechanisms.
What projects are you the most proud of, be they past or present ?
Since the beginning of my career, I have been interested in the physics of metals. Then I became involved with the application aspect of researches and I still am. It has implied a deep knowledge of the reaction kinetics and the microstructure of the studied systems. I persevere in this direction. It all regarded superconducting systems for the most part, but I still wish to mention two other marking projects : the first one was with the firm Rolex, during the development of paramagnetic spirals for their up-market watches. Spirals determine precision in the watch. It took a very sophisticated research, concerning both the distorsion and the microstructure. These spirals are now in production, which is a success for our laboratory. The other project is with our partner Charmilles Technologies. For this firm we created a new method of production that diminishes the number of ‘nanocracks’ on the surface of the tools they fabricate. This breakthrough was obtained combining the application of nanopowders and the observation of microstructure at the submicron level. In my opinion, this opens very interesting perspectives for the future, for example in issues dealing with the security of materials…
Has the creation of MaNEP been helpful ?
MaNEP played a decisive role by allowing to intensify even more the work with the industry, thank to the new means we could afford. The other great advantage of MaNEP is to allow a more long-term research for the development of the highly sophisticated modern superconductors. This implies the possibility of following ideas to the end and to make new ones concrete. Of course we still have to respect milestones per project, a constraint that represents the best possible preparation for the world of industry for the doctoral students.
And as a teaching professor, what has your greatest satisfaction been ?
Having been able to create a significant laboratory, that is unique in Europe and that combines physics and metallurgy, has allowed to educate a series of doc students who have very specific and high profiles. Many of them have now found key-positions, both in academic projects and in the industry. I, of course, feel proud and happy about it.
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