New head of Functional Fibres and Textiles department

"What this country needs is new fibres"

Aug 18, 2005 | MARTINA PETER

The Functional Fibres and Textiles department has been under new management since 1 July, when physicist Manfred Heuberger replaced interim department head Rudolf Hufenus.

The captain on the bridge: Manfred Heuberger, new head of Empa's Functional Fibres and Textiles department.

"My goal is to build on the department's outstanding performance and stimulate ideas for new applications in the field of fibres," said incoming department head Manfred Heuberger. "Empa already has excellent contacts with the textile industry, but this country needs new fibres. To continue to develop competitive products, traditional capabilities must be supplemented by interdisciplinary knowledge from the fields of chemistry, physics and biology. It will also be important to demonstrate the potential of fibres in entirely new domains such as electronics, nanostructures and photovoltaics."

Manfred Heuberger was first attracted to physics by a fascination with the stars. At university his interest shifted "from the very large to the very small": physical processes on the molecular and atomic level. In his doctoral dissertation "On Local Properties and Adhesion of Metal Polymer Systems" under Professor Schlapbach at the University of Fribourg, he addressed surface physics on the nanometre scale (1991 to 1994). Applying the then-new combination of atomic force microscope and scanning tunnelling microscope, he demonstrated, among other things, how the surface conductivity of conducting polymers depends on local pressure. For this work he received the Swiss Association for Microtechnics (SGMT) OMEGA Prize in 1995.

From thin lubricant films to joint fluids

In his first postdoctoral residence in Fribourg from 1994 to 1995, Dr Heuberger studied electrical microcontacts in collaboration with ABB. Next he received two grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation for postdoctoral work at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1995 to 1997). There he studied surface forces in organic films, demonstrating for the first time that sub-nanometre oscillations reduce friction in thin lubricant films. 

He continued to pursue the topic on Professor Nicholas Spencer's Surface Science and Technology team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, which he joined in 1997. As Senior Scientist, he studied the lubricating fluids that ensure smooth movement in both natural and artificial joints. Together with the ETH research team, Dr Heuberger showed how protein folding in joint fluids affects surface adsorption capacity and thence friction. The work led to new approaches to lubrication in artificial hip joints. Dr Heuberger also examined friction reduction through nanopatterning, the creation of nanometre-scale patterns and structures on polymer surfaces such as hip implants.

In addition to his research, Dr Heuberger was also an active teacher. He supervised several thesis and doctoral candidates and lectured on "Surfaces and Interfaces" and "Surfaces of Biomaterials: Properties and Characteristics".

The unbroken thread in Dr Heuberger's career: surface physics

Upon reading the recruitment notice for the new head of the Functional Fibres and Textiles department, Manfred Heuberger was immediately intrigued by the topic of fibres and surfaces. Surface science had been the unbroken thread throughout his research career. He assumed the post on 1 July 2005. His initial misgivings about assuming management of an existing department soon dissipated. "Today I am convinced that there is enormous potential for innovation in fibres and I know that I have found the best people to meet this challenge."

Author Dr Bärbel Zierl, Communication and Marketing department, tel. (+41) (0)44 823 49 09,

Contact Dr Manfred Heuberger, Functional Fibres and Textiles department, tel. (+41) (0)71 274 7878,


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