“New, outstanding materials are the most sustainable innovations”

TRANSFER magazine talks to Dr. Alwin Nagel

Dr. Nagel, you’ve been working permanently in the field of materials engineering since your studies in metallurgy. What made you decide to focus on this field and what do you find so fascinating about the topic?

Materials engineering and materials science are an interdisciplinary blend between engineering know-how and the sciences of physics and chemistry. It was this that led me to a degree in metallurgy and I still find it hugely appealing today. I enjoy looking into a material or component and examining its weaknesses – at the moment, for example, we’re using “correlative microscopy” based on computer tomography, light and electron microscopy. We’re tapping into our specialist knowledge of “quantitative microstructure analysis” and software engineering to measure microstructures and components intelligently and gain insights into them. We’re using powder technology, sintering, and metal die casting to develop new materials with improved properties that are matched to applications. This engineering angle on science and technology means always being open to new ideas, being inquisitive, posing questions, and finding solutions. As Mr. Spock from Star Trek would say, I still find this “fascinating.”

Although materials technology is practically invisible to the layman’s eye, it makes a decisive contribution to socially important challenges in many future fields. In your opinion, when people are looking for new materials, how much consideration should already be given to its actual application within a product?

I started asking myself that question when I was a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Metal Research, and later as a researcher in industry – and I still think about it today. Practical application should at least be part of the vision at the beginning of any quest for new materials. This even applies to questions in fundamental research. So as a consequence, effectively all materials scientists are engaged in applied research. By that I mean the practical benefit of knowledge.

That being said, in practice I’ve rarely witnessed the original application idea actually unveiling the future market for a new material. Most material innovations simply take too long. The market’s too fast and people find alternative materials – although new, outstanding materials always find a use. This means that they are the slowest, but also the most sustainable innovations. It’s no coincidence that human history is described by the materials we used: the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. Maybe today’s the Silicon Age.

For a long time, materials engineering focused almost exclusively on metals. These days, thanks to a variety of developments in this area, we have access to a huge and expanding number of materials. Which developments do you consider the most important milestones in the history of materials engineering?

In modern times, semiconductors have to be the biggest milestone. Not only did they make electronics and IT possible, as we’re seeing at the moment we now have environmentally friendly power generation with solar energy. There are functional materials for electrical conductors, contacts, even superconductors – all a leap forward. Innovative magnetic materials such as soft magnets and rare earth magnets have now made it possible to use electrical energy in generators and electric motors. In electronics, dielectrics and insulators have led to polymers that are changing the world. New high-performance polymers, especially composites with carbon fibers will be tremendously important in the future. They’ll compete with established light-construction metals, the kind you find in aeronautical construction and vehicles.

You’ve been director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Materials Engineering for 12 years, and, since August 2013, you’ve been managing director of the company Matworks, which is also part of the Steinbeis Network. Your Steinbeis enterprises offer client services in the fields of materials analysis, composites, and functional materials. There’s a strong emphasis on holistic solutions. How do customers benefit from this holistic approach?

Our clients come from a very broad range of areas, from small business with an acute need for a fast-turnaround damage analysis, to corporations with development projects lasting several years. We offer literature studies, patent research, and feasibility studies. All services require totally different know-how. For example, we also offer materialographic studies, magnetic measurement technology, and materials synthesis projects. Together, our aim is to identify holistic solutions which are matched specifically to the customer or problem. Clients value this and often recommend us to other departments. Long-term customer satisfaction is an integral part of our approach to customer acquisition.

Very often, we go step by step. So the focus may lie in efficiency, prospective success and risk. Together with our customers, we analyze their goals, derive appropriate measures from these, recommend efficient methods and draw up project options. During the implementation phases, we don’t get bogged down in the data – we pull together all the findings and mix it with our scientific expertise to gain new insights as a team. With some of our core clients, we’ve earned our laurels as an efficient service provider to work on specific measurement projects; if they want to, the clients can then pull the results of the analysis together themselves. The key difference compared to in-house testing labs is the greater flexibility and quicker turnarounds. Of course high standards are a priority for us, and our labs have ISO-9001 certification. Also the best possible cost-efficiency is a given.

Turning to the latest material trends, there’s a lot of talk at the moment about smart materials and new materials based on nano-technology and micro-technology. Where do you think future developments will take the industry? What new challenges will this present for projects at your Steinbeis enterprises?

Material innovations are typically targeted at new markets and promising applications. The focus currently lies in the sectors working in resource and energy efficiency, as well as electro-mobility. We’re involved in a close collaboration with the Institute of Materials Research at Aalen University. It has a strong foundation in research and together we’re shaping the future along the classic lines of Steinbeis technology transfer. We’re developing smart materials in the form of new functional materials – for example, hard and soft magnetic materials, metallicceramic composites, and battery storage materials. In the area of the big megatrend at the moment – lightweight construction – we’re currently focusing on the characterization of carbon fiber composites and their machinability. Then, hybrid lightweight construction will become important – i.e., combining CFCs with light metals, and joining technology. In terms of applied research and technology transfer, new material analysis methods are important. These have to go right down to the nanolevel, in high resolution, offering total precision – but they also have to be quick. This is important so they can be used efficiently in industrial applications. The fact that there are opportunities to use new technology to leverage benefit on a broader scale in this niche area is being underscored by our partners in industry. As long as you use the right “tools,” we’re convinced that we’re ideally geared to future trends, even the emerging ones that can’t be predicted yet.


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