In brief

News from the lab

Mar 11, 2024 | EMPA NEWSROOM
Save the Date: Open Lab Day at Empa in Dübendorf

On Saturday, 14 September 2024, Empa opens its doors for an Open Lab Day in Dübendorf. Visitors can get to know the new Empa and Eawag campus, co-operate, and immerse themselves in the world of materials science and technology at Empa. There will be numerous booths, demonstrators and lectures for young and old on the topics of climate change, energy transition, dwindling resources, fascinating materials and healthy life in a healthy environment. Visitors will also gain an insights into the demonstrators NEST, move, ehub and WaterHub, and learn more about apprenticeships at Empa. Interested? Find out more about the event online and in the next issue of Empa Quarterly. More information: Openday

A dynamic understanding of back pain
Empa researchers want to improve the diagnosis of lumbar spinal stenosis. Image: Adobe Stock

Musculoskeletal disorders are the second most common cause of disability worldwide. In order to provide early and effective treatment, we need to better understand the interplay between complex biochemical processes and the body's biomechanics. The pain often only occurs when patients are in motion – and yet, the diagnosis is mainly made using static images. An Empa team wants to change this in a newly launched two-year project involving scientists from the Mechanical Systems Engineering laboratory, the Center for X-ray Analytics and Scientific IT, as well as clinical partners at Inselspital Bern. The aim is to improve the diagnosis of a painful degenerative disease of the spine known as lumbar spinal stenosis using a combination of biomarkers, X-ray images in motion and 3D imaging of muscles and ligaments. In parallel, the researchers also want to develop a secure platform for the management of clinical data.
More information: Dynamic imaging center

Smartfeld education lab is growing
Soak up the sun: At Smartfeld, kids learn physics with the help of demonstrators conceived at Empa.

With the support of the IT education campaign, the Smartfeld education lab is expanding its range of services. Pupils from the Werdenberg-Sarganserland and Lake Zurich-Linth regions can now attend STEM workshops on site in Buchs and Rapperswil-Jona, in addition to the location at the Switzerland Innovation Park OST in St. Gallen. The interdisciplinary education initiative was co-started by Empa, among others, in 2018. Empa researchers develop STEM demonstrators for Smartfeld, which are then manufactured at Empa in collaboration with the institute's apprentices. In 2023, Smartfeld attracted well over 4,000 students and more than 300 teachers for workshops and courses.
More information: Home | Smartfeld | Technologie + Kreativität

Tires as a source of microplastics
Car tires release material into the environment even during "normal" driving. Image: Adobe Stock

If you brake hard in a car, the tires will leave a black mark on the road. Tire wear is, however, not only generated during extreme manoeuvers, but also during every "normal" drive; even at constant speed, the tires rub against the road surface, releasing tire material into the environment. This material accounts for a large proportion of the total released microplastics. In a recently published report in response to a postulate from the Swiss parliament, researchers from Empa and the company wst21 summarized the results of numerous studies and presented approaches on how tire wear can be reduced.
More information: Empa - Communication - Mikroplastik-Reifen-Abrieb

STEP2: A new NEST unit is taking shape
The modular ceiling of the STEP2 unit was prefabricated by Stahlton Bauteile AG and assembled on site. Image: ROK

Construction is underway, once again, at the research and innovation building NEST. The new unit goes by the name of STEP2. Over the past three years, project partners from various disciplines have developed innovations with high market potential, which will be implemented in a real-world construction project for the very first time, such as the newly designed ribbed filigree ceiling, a digitally constructed concrete staircase or an innovative façade system. STEP2 is scheduled to be completed in spring 2024.

Moving X-ray images: Dynamic Imaging Center opens its doors
Empa is one of the partners who have jointly established the new Dynamic Imaging Center (DIC) in Bern. Image: sitem

At the beginning of November, the Dynamic Imaging Center (DIC) was opened at sitem-insel, the Swiss Institute for Translational Medicine and Entrepreneurship. It is the first customized laboratory of its kind in Europe to be operated in a clinical environment. Here, X-ray images of a moving person can be taken simultaneously from two different directions. This is unique in Europe and a milestone in the investigation of musculoskeletal disorders. The center is a collaboration between sitem-insel, Inselspital/Bern University Hospital and Empa.

Empa - Communication - Dynamic imaging center

Empa's Bright Minds : Special edition "Mining the Atmosphere"

In the future, excess man-made CO2 is to be captured from the atmosphere and converted into valuable materials such as building materials or polymers. This is the goal of Empa's new research initiative: Mining the Atmosphere. A special edition of Bright Minds: Bold Ideas. Smart Materials. is dedicated to this vision  – from CO2 capturing to converting carbon into innovative materials. This special edition kicks off with Nathalie Casas, head of the Department Energy, Mobility and Environment, together with Peter Richner, head of the Department Engineering Sciences. In the first episode, the two shed light on the potential of this promising vision as well on the hurdles and challenges.  

Global monitoring network for greenhouse gases
A global data set on the distribution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will help researchers to better understand climate change. Photo: Adobe Stock

In order to better understand climate change, we need to know the concentration and distribution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as accurately as possible. The Global Greenhouse Gas Watch (GGGW) is an initiative of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) for the development of a global infrastructure for measuring and monitoring greenhouse gases. Empa researchers from the Air Pollutants / Environmental Technology lab are playing a key role in this. Central to this is WMO's Global Atmosphere Watch program. Empa operates a world calibration center for the gaseous components in this program. Among other things, Empa carries out audits and provides training and support for measuring stations around the world. It thus ensures that all partners provide reliable and comparable data and promotes the international exchange of knowledge in the field of atmospheric research.

From fiction to innovation
Podcast : Empa Director Tanja Zimmermann in the studio with Matthias Halusa, Country Manager Switzerland at BASF. Photo: BASF

In BASF's "Schweizer Macher" podcast, Empa Director Tanja Zimmermann talks about her vision for Empa as a "beacon for new materials and technologies" and about inspiring ideas for a sustainable future. She also reveals how innovations are created at Empa, how much diversity contributes to this process, and what we can learn from science fiction. The episode (in German) is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and on the web.

Georgios Mavromatidis to head the Urban Energy Systems laboratory
New leadership: Georgios Mavromatidis will head the Urban Energy Systems Lab starting in October.

Starting in October, Georgios Mavromatidis will take over as head of the Urban Energy Systems lab. He will succeed Kristina Orehounig, who will be joining the Vienna University of Technology as a professor in the research area of building physics and building ecology. Currently a senior researcher at ETH Zurich, Mavromatidis has previously been a postdoc at the lab he is now to lead, doing research on multi-energy systems and building energy efficiency. He holds a doctorate in Energy Systems Modelling from ETH Zurich, an MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures from Imperial College London and a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Bright Minds: Revolutionizing the battery market
In the current episode of “Bright Minds”, Empa researcher and spin-off co-founder Abdessalem Aribia talks about highlights and challenges. Image: Empa

Safer and longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries, which can also be manufactured much more sustainably, are soon expected to revolutionize the battery market. Developing such game-changing solutions is no walk in the park. Empa scientists take on that formidable task – and they deliver! High time to put the limelight on the faces behind the novel materials and technologies from our labs: The new video series "Bright Minds: Bold Ideas. Smart Materials" will give you insights about our researchers' journeys and their paths to discoveries all the way to the translation into practical applications. In the current episode, Empa researcher and spin-off co-founder Abdessalem Aribia highlights the challenges and successes in developing this promising battery technology.

A light signal for better air
Open the window: When the CO2 concentration in a room rises, the "Wuerfeli" changes color to orange and, eventually, red. Image: Wuerfeli

The "Wuerfeli" makes air quality visible. The small sensor measures the CO2 concentration in indoor air and indicates by its color when it is time to ventilate. Moreover, the small pyramid measures parameters such as temperature, relative humidity and air pressure. The sensor was developed with the participation of Empa as part of a large-scale study on air quality in classrooms. The result is an effective and tested air measuring device, manufactured in Switzerland. The start-up QE GmbH, based in Technopark Graubünden, produces the "Wuerfeli", which is now available online.

New Head of Department: Nathalie Casas to succeed Brigitte Buchmann
Nathalie Casas will take over as Head of the Empa department "Energy, Mobility and Environment" on 1 October 2023.

The Empa Directorate has appointed Nathalie Casas as a successor to Brigitte Buchmann. The chemical and bioengineer and expert in CO2 capture will take over the leadership of the department Energy, Mobility and Environment on 1 October 2023 from Brigitte Buchmann, who will retire in July. In addition to her academic track record with cutting-edge research, Nathalie Casas brings a broad range of experiences in start-ups, industry and governmental innovation promotion. Most recently, Casas headed the Research and Development department at the ETH spin-off and cleantech company Climeworks, as well as being a member of the Innosuisse Innovation Council.

A work of art for the new campus

The new research campus co-operate of Empa and Eawag is nearing completion. To mark the opening next year, a new work of art is to give the campus a "face". Originally from Lausanne, artist Julian Charrière won the Art competition with his sculpture group "Not to Get Lost". The composition of boulders of different sizes and stone wedges convinced the jury also because it expressed a commonality of art and science: Both disciplines pursue - albeit in different ways - the previously unexplored Stone working as one of the first cultural techniques of mankind introduced people to the divisibility of even the most solid materials. Today's research and its search for "the inside" of matter carries this cultural heritage further and into new dimensions.

Annual Report 2022 is out!
Cover image: Stretchable AC electroluminescent device. Image: Empa

2022 was a year of many changes, around the globe, in Switzerland and at Empa. In our Annual Report, we look back onto our research and our collaborations, as well as drafting our course for the future. Join us on a deep dive into the world of research and innovation and experience the broad spectrum of materials science and technology at Empa.

More information:

Yaroslav Romanyuk takes over as new head of laboratory
Yaroslav Romanyuk will be the new head of Thin Films and Photovoltaics as of 1 July 2023. Image: Empa

Yaroslav Romanyuk will take over as head of Empa's Thin Films and Photovoltaics laboratory on 1 July. He succeeds Ayodhya Tiwari, who is retiring after just over 14 years as head of the lab. Romanyuk joined Empa in 2008; since 2012, he has been a group leader in the laboratory, which he will now head. In addition to his work at Empa, he is a lecturer at ETH Zurich, EPFL and the University of Zurich. After gaining his Master's degree from the Volyn State University in Ukraine, Romanyuk obtained his doctorate from EPFL and worked as a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley.

More information: Empa - Thin Films and Photovoltaics - Research

Meet Empa's Bright Minds

Developing game-changing solutions for society's most pressing challenges is tough. Empa scientists take on that task – and deliver. High time to put the limelight on the faces behind the novel materials and technologies developed at Empa: A new video series – "Bright Minds: Bold Ideas. Smart Materials." will give you insights about a researcher's personal journey and their path to discoveries all the way to the translation of research in practical applications. The videos also reveal how interdisciplinary teamwork at Empa is advancing innovation. "Bright Minds" will launch in May 2023, with Mirko Kovac and Evgeniia Gilshtein our "Sustainability Robotics" experts taking center stage.

More info on

Novel computer components inspired by human brain cells
Illustration: istock

Researchers at Empa, ETH Zurich and the "Politecnico di Milano" are developing a new type of computer component that is more powerful and easier to manufacture than its predecessors. Inspired by the human brain, it is designed to process large amounts of data fast and in an energy-efficient way. The novel component, known as a memristor, is based on halide perovskite nanocrystals, a semiconductor material known from solar cell manufacturing. The researchers manufactured the thin-film memristors at the Thin Films and Photovoltaics laboratory and investigated their physical properties at the Transport at Nanoscale Interfaces laboratory, both at Empa. Based on the measurements, they successfully simulated a complex computational task that corresponds to a learning process in the visual cortex of the brain.

More information:

A children's book for a sustainable future
For the future Schoolchildren and researchers will work together to design a children's book on circular economy. Image: Pixabay

Climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, growing mountains of waste, dwindling resources: Our (one and only) home planet is in deep crisis. Research tells us what we need to do in order to build a sustainable society: limit resource consumption, circulate materials in the technosphere, and provide renewable energy for sustainable materials cycles. However, the conditions, pathways, and opportunities are not very tangible. In order to change this, Empa researchers sought out unusual collaboration partners: schoolchildren. Supported by the St. Gallen University of Teacher Education, they want to work with primary schoolchildren to develop visions for a sustainable future and compile them in an illustrated children's book. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) is supporting the project as part of its Agora program, together with the household appliance manufacturer V-Zug and the trade association SWICO.

More information:

New technology revolutionizes the analysis of old ice
Frozen history The 1.5 million year old ice contains bubbles of ancient air, making it an important climate archive. Image: PNRA/IPEV

The Beyond EPICA – Oldest Ice project, a European consortium that includes the University of Bern, aims to analyze 1.5 million year-old Antarctic ice to gather data about Earth's climate history. Such ice cores are a key climate archive. They contain air bubbles, which will allow scientists to directly measure historical greenhouse gas concentrations. However, such measurements are far from trivial. 15,000 to 20,000 years of climate history are compressed into just one meter of ice. Together with the University of Bern, Empa researchers have developed a new method to accurately analyze the ancient ice. The team led by Lukas Emmenegger, head of Empa’s Air Pollutants/Environmental Technology laboratory, developed a new laser spectrometer that can measure greenhouse gases on a sample of just 1.5 milliliters of air.

More information:

Go-ahead for the journey to CO2-negative cement
Exciting task: Empa expert Barbara Lothenbach will lead the challenging research project. Image: Empa

The cement industry emits large amounts of climate-damaging carbon dioxide – but alternative binders based on magnesium carbonate could even bind CO2. Concrete as a carbon sink? Cements based not on limestone, aka calcium carbonate (CaCO3), but on magnesium silicates are one source of hope. A research project by Empa researcher Barbara Lothenbach, who recently received one of the first Advanced Grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), is to lay the foundations for this as of early next year. Unlike conventional cements, whose hardening has been investigated down to the tiniest details, these materials still raise many questions. In seven focal areas, Empa experts and partners from the Finnish University of Oulu will thus explore what is happening at the molecular level. How do such cements harden and with which formulations? What is the effect of temperature, pH and other factors such as reaction accelerators? Does the volume of magnesium concrete remain stable over the long term? And how resistant is it? In the end, the findings from laboratory tests and thermodynamic modeling should flow into a digital twin of magnesium carbonate cement – a simulation of the processes involved in hardening and the basis, Empa experts hope, for formulations of robust concretes that bind as much CO2 as possible.

Further information:

Successful funding round for Empa spin-off
The founders of Nahtlos AG, José Näf and Michel Schmid, with prototypes (front left) of textile-based electrodes for long-term ECGs in their laboratory in St. Gallen. Image: Marlies Thurnheer

The company Nahtlos, an Empa spin-off, has received one million Swiss francs in a first round of financing from a network of business angels from Switzerland and Liechtenstein and from the Startfeld Foundation. This is intended to drive the market entry of an innovative textile-based electrode for medical applications. In the past two years, the company had developed such components, among other things for recording heart activity through electrocardiograms (ECG) – for example, to be able to detect atrial fibrillation. Textile-based electrodes enable gentle and skin-friendly application, even if the electrodes have to be worn for several days or even weeks. They are thus a real alternative to the gel electrode, which was developed 60 years ago and is still considered the standard for medical applications today.

Further information:

Water-activated paper battery among world's best inventions
The paper battery consists of two electrochemical cells connected in series at the two ends of the paper strip, separated by a water barrier (between the letters "m" and "p"). Image: Empa

A team led by Gustav Nyström from Empa's Cellulose & Wood Materials Laboratory has made it onto the list of the 200 most important inventions published by Time magazine – with its biodegradable disposable battery, the function of which is triggered by adding a bit of water. The jury awarded the prize to the Empa team in the "Experimental" category; the jury evaluates inventions according to originality, creativity, efficiency, impact and other criteria. The battery developed by Nyström's team consists of at least one electrochemical cell measuring around one square centimeter. What makes it special is that the fact that both paper and zinc and the other components are biodegradable could significantly minimize the environmental impact of disposable electronics with low power consumption – an important step towards green electronics.

Further information:
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