«Research should be fun»

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«Research should be fun»

Research should set things in motion. This is the motto of Matthias Koebel, Head of Empa’s Building Energy Materials and Components lab. The chemist has ambitious goals and successfully combines an inquisitive spirit with entrepreneurial flair.

Matthias Koebel is a pragmatic. One who not only understands things but also wants to use them. You immediately sense this when he talks about the research projects conducted in his lab. Research is his passion, especially when the projects he tackles eventually find their way from the lab «to the street». One of his core topics is aerogel, a class of material that, thanks to its unique properties, is regarded as a promising alternative to previous materials in a wide range of fields - from outer space to the construction industry. A classic representative, silicate aerogel, is heat-resistant up to 600 degrees, ultra-light, non-toxic, waterproof, a great insulator and can be produced as a powder or granules and used widely in various products.

On the other side, aerogel is still expensive to produce, which makes it hard to compete with conventional materials. Nonetheless, Koebel and his team not only succeeded in producing aerogel more simply on a laboratory scale, but also in gathering vital experience in what is known as the scale-up. In the end, they managed to produce the material in large quantities using a simplified and even less expensive method.

But the path was anything but straight as the scientist from Aargau happened upon aerogel thanks to a series of lucky coincidences, of which - he concedes - he has had many in his life. It was a coincidence that he ended up at Empa as a chemist in what was then the Building Technologies lab - i.e., as a kind of exotic bird in a flock of architects, construction physicists and engineers. There, he came across aerogel insulating materials within the scope of a CTI project. And his scientific spirit also stood him in good stead here as Koebel was not willing to content himself solely with upscaling. «In order to take something from a lab scale to large-scale production, first of all you need to understand the process,» he says.

This prompted the team of «nobodies» to start synthesizing aerogel themselves and learn the ropes. Only a short while later, Koebel suddenly found himself at a congress in the US rubbing shoulders with all the top-shots in the field, which also resulted in him co-editing a reference work on the topic - and sticking with it over the years. And with a certain degree of success, too, as he says with a hint of pride: «Meanwhile, we’re extremely well-connected and have become top-shots in the field ourselves.»

His strong focus on practical applications is also reflected in the structure of his lab. While two teams concentrate on basic research on aerogel and other colloidal materials, a third group is devoted to finding potential applications for the new materials. Koebel has plenty of ideas, but of these numerous brainwaves he only pursues the ones he deems promising - as Koebel is the kind of entrepreneur whose heart is not just in research, but also in society.

He sees himself more in the role of a «mad scientist» - but only to make sure his ideas don’t get stuck at the lab door. «I want to achieve something», he stresses, and that is precisely why it is not just pivotal for him to advance research in the lab, but also to implement it on the market. The scientists in his team are, therefore, expected to adopt a two-pronged approach, i.e. not just think about the next scientific publication but also keep one eye on a possible industrial application. Thinking and experimenting takes time, Koebel notes, one aspect that is all too readily lost in our society, which is geared towards quantitative output. In Koebel’s lab, however, it may take a bit longer until the next publication, but then the quality needs to be right.

Enjoyment is a principle that characterizes Koebel’s life in general. Taking time so that many ideas can be tested, so good research can take shape and so you end up where the true treasures lie buried; so you can really get to the bottom of things. «Chemistry is like cooking», says Koebel. «Chefs need to know their ingredients, master the craft and be gourmets to produce good results. They have to enjoy the process; it’s the same with chemists: enjoy research.» It is hardly surprising that Koebel is also a gourmet and passionate cook in his spare time. And regardless of whether he is cooking up new recipes at home or in the lab, taking pleasure in it always comes first for him.