ETH Zurich’s last tribologist?

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Nic Spencer in his laboratory, shortly before the corona related lockdown. (Pict

Nic Spencer in his laboratory, shortly before the corona related lockdown. (Picture: Gian Marco Castelberg)

The materials scientist, chemist and world-renowned tribologist Nicholas Spencer will be retiring soon. His departure could signal the loss of a specialist discipline within ETH Zurich.

The professor of materials science greets you by asking whether he should speak English or Swiss German, and then continues chatting in flawless Zurich dialect. He says he learned it so he could understand the secret language his children were using. It’s almost 30 years since Spencer and his family first moved to Switzerland. "Although we spoke English at home, my kids were chatting more and more to each other in Swiss German... so I had to adapt," he explains. Language is no longer an issue now his children are grown up, but when there is a family get-together the younger generation still tend to speak to each other in the local dialect.

Now Nic Spencer has come to the end of another era. He has been a professor at ETH Zurich for over 27 years, having started out as one of the first five professors of materials science in what was then the Departement Werkstoffe. He has recently retired - although the coronavirus crisis has pushed his farewell lecture back to 2021 - and his departure threatens to leave ETH entirely lacking a specialist discipline: tribology.

Tribology is the science of interacting surfaces in relative motion and includes the study of friction, lubrication and wear. Spencer has been a pioneer in this discipline: he has built an international reputation, served as editor-in-chief of one of its top-ranking scientific journals for many years and organised many international conferences on the subject. Last autumn he received one of the biggest honours in the field, the Tribology Gold Medal from the UK’s Tribology Trust.

Explosives in the family kitchen

Science was not exactly written into his DNA. He was born in the UK in 1955 to a fashion designer and a businessman with a flair for languages. "There was not a single role model in our family who could have nurtured my interest in science," he recalls.

In fact, it was the first space travel and satellites that awakened his interest in science. "The first British communications satellite was Telstar, and I was absolutely fascinated by it," he says.

His parents gave him a basic camera for his fifth birthday - and by the age of seven he was developing his own film. "The chemistry involved in photography interested me almost more than the photographs themselves," he remembers. As a teenager, he used the family kitchen to perform chemistry experiments and make substances like esters. There were no major incidents, although he once even cooked up some explosives, as he remembers with a grin.

At high school Spencer had a chance to broaden his interest in chemistry. "I even spent extra hours in the laboratory so that I could synthesise substances." He also became increasingly fascinated by physics. "But when I finally realized that physicists rely on mathematical explanations for everything, I realized that I was never really satisfied by those. What really appealed to me about chemistry was the use of rigorous science to be able to actually visualize chemical reactions," the ETH professor recalls.

Spencer spent six years at the University of Cambridge, three studying for a BSc in chemistry and three as a PhD researcher in surface chemistry.

Dipping his toe into industry

After finishing his doctorate, Spencer worked at the University of California, Berkeley as a postdoctoral researcher. He then turned his back on academia for a while and moved to the East Coast, where he worked in the chemical industry while living in Washington, D.C.

Everything was going well initially, but as time passed, Spencer became increasingly dissatisfied with the short-term nature of corporate research. He decided to return to academia and leave Washington, D.C. - a decision also influenced by the fact that Washington had the highest murder rate in the country at that time.

Despite the fact that he had acquired US citizenship, Spencer and his wife did not want their two children (with a third on the way) to grow up in an environment like that. He put out some feelers to Europe, and quickly found a suitable post: In 1992, ETH Zurich set up a new professorship in what was still a very young Departement Werkstoffe. Spencer applied and got the job, joining ETH in May 1993.

So the Spencer family moved to Zurich, getting their start in accommodation provided by ETH before eventually buying a house in Zollikon. And he finally became a Swiss citizen in 2013: "I now have three passports, although the British one has still proven extremely useful: Thanks to that, I could recently return from Argentina, on a flight organized by the British government for their citizens," he says wryly.

Getting below the surface

Spencer’s academic studies have been mostly superficial in the literal sense. All the knowledge of physics, chemistry and engineering gathered during his time in industry was channelled into his research. He explored many aspects of tribology, from water-based lubricants and railway tracks to the imitation of human cartilage.

One topic he devoted a lot of time to was "biofouling", the colonisation of surfaces such as ship hulls by bacteria, algae and other marine life. Even today, ship owners sometimes combat this by applying highly toxic paint containing heavy metals.

Polymer brushes lubricate catheters

As a solution to the problem of biofouling, as well as to prevent friction, Spencer developed surface-anchored, nanoscopically small brushes made of polymer chains. Not only can they protect ships’ hulls, they can also lubricate the instruments used to insert artificial replacement lenses in the eye and aid the smooth insertion or removal of catheters in the human body.

These polymer brushes have been in commercial use for some time in applications such as contact lenses, where they prevent the protein in human tears from sticking to the lens. "I certainly did not invent that field, but my colleagues and I have done an awful lot of research so that polymer brushes can be used in real-life applications."

Two of Spencer’s former postdoctoral researchers used the specialist expertise they acquired in his research group to form a company, SuSoS, over a decade ago. SuSoS has developed polymer brushes for applications including eye surgery. Spencer is still on the company’s scientific advisory panel and would like to be more involved in their research and development once he retires. "It would be great to push forward applications in which I have mainly been involved on a purely theoretical level so far."

Tribology may be lost

Spencer’s departure means that tribology expertise and indeed the entire discipline will cease to exist at ETH Zurich. He has passed on some of his equipment to colleagues at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). On the one hand this saddens him, because "tribology lays a foundation for the efficient use of energy and thus for the reduction of greenhouse gases," he says, giving food for thought. But he acknowledges that ETH has to make tricky decisions when replacing professors.

Having chaired the ETH Zurich Research Commission for many years, Spencer is all too familiar with such dilemmas from his own experience. He was a member of this important commission for 12 years, 8 of them as president. He also played a role in professorial appointments, serving as the ETH President’s delegate in selection committees for 20 years. Spencer was also Head of Department three times: once right at the start of his career, when "all the professors in the department could still fit in my car", he says.

No time for boredom

In spite of his imminent retirement, Nic Spencer will not lose touch with ETH. He will continue to give lectures to Master’s students until the degree programme is revised. The department has already revamped the Bachelor’s course, which is due to start in the autumn.

Even so, he is looking forward to having more free time, which he plans to spend on his hobbies, such as tango dancing. The professor of materials has already travelled to Argentina several times to dance there, most recently in March, when a two-week vacation turned into a two-month quarantine! He also wants to improve his command of Spanish, as he often travels around Spanish-speaking regions. This is partly to do with another of his big passions - wine. "I regularly visit vineyards in Spain and Argentina," he says. One thing is certain: Nicholas Spencer will never be bored.

Peter Regg