Professor Frank Behrendt on science being a way of life

March 22, 2017

Professor Dr. Frank Behrendt is the Head Chair for Energy Process Engineering and Conversion Technologies for Renewable Energies at the Berlin Institute of Technology (Technische Universität Berlin) and is the managing director of the TU-Campus EUREF GmbH. He is an influential scientific adviser to the German government on their 'Energiewende' energy transformation policy. In this interview, he tells us how science is a way of life for those who have the intrinsic drive to tackle the uncharted, and the balance between heritage and modernity while redesigning systems.

 

“If I wanted to have a nine-to-five job, private life and sleep as well, I wouldn’t have pursued science. Science is not a switch you can turn on when you are in the office or off when you are out of it. It is a way of life.”

 

Why should people study sciences? And how should we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?

 

It is more pertinent to ask what prompts people to study science. Curiosity is the prime motivator for those who do. Children who are inquisitive about their surroundings have a higher potential to later become scientists. Therefore, parents have a significant influence in igniting the spark in young minds. During formative years, curiosity in children fosters a thirst for knowledge and interest in understanding natural phenomena and the working of machines. In this context, different playing habits of children can be observed. There are two ways young ones play with toys: a) simply using them or b) dismantling them to study their inner mechanisms. The latter is a classic case of a child who has engineering (or scientific) aptitude. When he/she takes apart clocks, watches and toys, it shows a thought process keen to examine complex systems, instead of taking them for granted. Science starts when people ask fundamental questions.

 

Is this ‘curiosity’ inherited, or developed as a result of one’s surroundings?

 

It is a bit of both. Some children are inherently more curious than others, but the spirit of enquiry is universal and in everybody. The spark can be ignited, but the type of feedback received from the surroundings is crucial. Children need to be encouraged to brainstorm and learn in order to sustain motivation and interest. Discouraging them from taking things apart to understand how they work is detrimental to developing a yearning for science.

 

Do you think that peer-pressure in school sometimes puts children, especially girls, off to study science?

 

Interest regarding what to (or not to) study is cultivated much earlier than in elementary or secondary school, as discussed. If a schoolchild is already curious and is fascinated by science, he/she may continue to develop, broaden and deepen their interest for it during school. During schooldays, scientific temper is fostered with the help of more formalised tools and teaching concepts of engineering, science, mathematics and life sciences. It is crucial for teachers to keep students enthused.

With regards to peer pressure, it may have an effect on who pursues science, but it depends greatly on school and pedagogy. Managing expectations appropriately is of paramount importance. For example, some people like tinkering with machines and technical equipment leading them to believe a degree in mechanical engineering would be suitable. However, they forget that mechanical engineering, like all other engineering disciplines actually requires many other skills, such as higher level mathematics. Simply being mechanically-minded is not enough, because engineering is not done just with oily fingers, but primarily with a pen, paper and calculator!

 

Can you tell us what you are working on and how it benefits humanity?

 

When I was a child I loved to play with fire and found it fascinating. I have eventually made the study of combustion my profession, but now simulate the burning of various kinds of fuel including the gasification of biomass. Wooden biomass can be transformed by gasification for use as gaseous fuel or for further conversion into liquid fuels (like diesel, petrol and kerosene) by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Our group performs simulations and experiments to understand these phenomena better. 80 % to 85 % of energy conversion processes such as these occur in engines, turbines, power plants and household fireplaces involve burning fuel. Important aspects of my research include reducing pollutant emissions and making these combustion processes more efficient, thus lowering the carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy helping to slow down the greenhouse effect. I would not say my research activities help humanity per se, but they make a small contribution towards a more sustainable future.

 

How did you end up doing research in energy process engineering?

 

I started as a chemist, where there are typically three major subdisciplines: organic, inorganic and physical chemistry. Physical chemistry piqued my interest, but my research choice came about as a result of serendipity. When I was looking for a thesis supervisor at the end of my studies, I attended a presentation by Jürgen Warnatz, a new professor at Heidelberg University, who was talking about modelling combustion processes. It was a combination of chemistry, fluid mechanics and reaction engineering. Inspired by his talk, I spoke to him after the lecture and was lucky that he was just looking for his first diploma student! I joined his group as its first member and stayed with him for 17 years at three different universities. The presentation was a turning point in my scientific career, and sometimes one must spot those chances and seize them. Taking my academic journey as an example shows that pre-defined plans for your career could cause you to miss wonderful opportunities.

 

Is it important to have mentors? Did you have a mentor?

 

The above mentioned supervisor was my mentor. It is crucial to have one, not only because he or she can give you advice and help you making the right choices, but also enlivens you with their passion and interest. Science is definitely not a classic nine-to-five job. Experiments may take longer than anticipated, developing new equations may not be as straight forward as it might first appear, and numerical simulations may prove to be more tricky than expected. So, if you don’t have the intrinsic drive to tackle the unknown and uncharted, you cannot make a name for yourself. A good mentor lives with an all-consuming drive, which you develop as well. Both personal and professional mentors are instrumental in making good choices. It is therefore advantageous to find people who have the same goals and interests as you.

I try to instil the love for science and engineering in my group too, encouraging my students to pursue difficult problems, and not to seek simplistic solutions to them.

 

You are currently the managing director of the educational branch of TU Berlin on the EUREF-campus. Can you please tell us more about it?

 

The Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) has a series of life-long learning interdisciplinary master programmes and has established four of them at the EUREF-campus. The courses we currently hold at the campus are called:

With the EUREF campus, we wish to harvest the spirit of this place. We use the setting as a platform for more than a hundred companies to come together and collaborate on developing promising novel energy technologies. The firms based on the campus range from small start-ups to local branches of multinational companies, such as Cisco, General Electric and Schneider Electric. Their research focus lies on what Germany calls “Energiewende” (‘energy transformation’) and involves overhauling the German energy supply system. Though it primarily involves a lot theoretical work and policy, many facets need to be tried out in practice and at a reasonable scale. The EUREF campus provides exactly this setting, and helps evaluate the technologies objectively.

 

What are the requirements to be admitted to a masters at the EUREF-campus? Since it is so interdisciplinary, is the intake very diverse?

 

All students need to have a certain amount of professional experience, but the pre-requisite educational backgrounds differ. We seek people who have their own area of expertise, wishing to work on topics requiring knowledge spanning different disciplines. It is important that students have a strong knowledge in their own background in order to contribute to the discussion beyond a point.

Our masters courses attract people from all over the globe such as Latin America, North America, Asia, and Africa and even within Europe. They all bring knowledge from their engineering, science, law or economics education with them, along with their professional experience and drive. Having such a diverse group of talented people at our campus brings about an enormous potential to manage and organize innovation in order to tackle the challenges of tomorrow and further their careers.

 

What do the students learn out of these interactions? How does ‘Energiewende’ approach the heritage versus progress discussion?

 

The masters courses act as a catalyst to bring students closer to companies, allowing them to foster their understanding on how the German “Energiewende” impacts businesses, which strategies work well and what complex issues may arise. For example, newly erected buildings on the EUREF campus follow the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard. This involves providing many facilities, such as sufficient storage area for bicycles and changing rooms for people arriving on them. There are many old, heritage listed buildings on campus, which are up for renovation or rebuilding. This leads to interesting conflicts, especially between conservationists and energy engineers. The latter would like to completely transform the building, but the former would object even if single pane windows were being replaced with double pane ones! These sorts of ideological differences complicate the energy system transformation, but also make it very interesting. A fine balance must be struck for progress to occur. Besides, policy needs to be changed to encourage fusion of old and new as well. The gas storage facilities called “Gasometers” are remnants of old German coal gasification technology. Placing vertical wind turbines on top of them represents a confluence of old and new energy technology. However, the process to get a legal permit to retrofit these is more expensive than the actual wind turbines, which defeats the purpose.

 

Do you think research projects should lead to entrepreneurial ventures? What skills should an entrepreneur have?

 

Whilst a lot of research is being done on the “Energiewende”, it will eventually be industry who implements it. Corporates have the unique ability to provide machinery, goods and services, which politics, policy or academia do not. Since a lot of infrastructure is needed to transform theories into tangible products, there is great potential for entrepreneurial ventures based on good research ideas to succeed.

Most science graduates will probably not end up in academia, but in industry or business - either as employees or entrepreneurs. Starting a successful company depends not only on the business area, but also on personal motivation. Creating a start-up means having to take certain financial risks and cannot be done without the support of your immediate surroundings. However, having a good idea is not enough. One needs to have mental strength, conviction and absolute dedication to the project. Not doing so will most likely lead to failure, because you will be competing with many other good people who may have similar ideas.

Silicon Valley perpetuates a culture of repeated failures until finally getting it right. I don’t agree with this approach. Mistakes may and will happen along the way, but one shouldn’t strive towards them! The adage “Every failure makes you stronger” sometimes is used as an excuse for lousy ideas. An essential aspect of entrepreneurship is to judge yourself objectively and critically to refine your process or product continuously. You need self-confidence and the willingness to re-learn things, because quite often it is better to learn by breaking things yourself, rather than others breaking them. Being a scientist develops entrepreneurial skills, as it involves diving into the deep end. Daring ideas risk your time and/or personal reputation. However, in academia, the risk to your personal wealth and wellbeing is much lower, making it fundamentally different to business.

 

What should be done to enhance the appreciation of science? What can researchers do towards this goal?

 

The willingness to talk to the public about your work is crucial. Some of my colleagues refuse newspaper interviews, since they feel the public would not understand them anyway. I disagree with this approach. If you have a good story to tell, it is worth sitting down with journalists and investing some time to explain what you are working on. If you feel “the public is not interested in us”, then make yourself interesting! The owner of the EUREF campus, Reinhard Müller, metaphorically explains interacting with the public: “It is not important for the fisherman to find the worm tasty, but it needs to be tasty for the fish.” The story must captivate the interest of the media.

Look at Professor Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist. Even though his field is not very accessible to the public he has achieved cult status, because he is willing to interact with the public. This doesn’t mean that scientists should necessarily strive to become media darlings, but they should communicate their work and its significance to the public. Furthermore, scientists should also engage with policymakers, because that is the most apt forum to bring about systemic change. National foundations of science and technology need to take a policy advisory role. It is not about telling politicians what to do, but it is about offering them usable options with which they can make informed decisions. It is our job to communicate science to the public and politicians by re-phrasing it in a clear, factual way which empowers them to make wise choices.

 

Should scientists be more trained on how to communicate with politics and public?

 

Absolutely. Scientific communities working on a particular problem tend to be rather small. It is difficult enough to understand scientists with the same educational background and nearly impossible for somebody with a completely different background to understand scientists. Many researchers overlook this. Conveying your work to the general public isn’t about talking specifics, but about showing them the bigger picture. Scientists shouldn’t necessarily attend technical writing classes to become better journalists but should spend some time with reporters to highlight the important elements to be communicated. Science is the researcher’s forte, while words, ideas and their communication is that of the journalist’s. The interdisciplinary interaction between both needs to happen for good science communication.

 

How do you maintain a healthy work life-balance? How do you balance academia, advisory and your private life?

 

What is a private life? If you are really passionate about science and you want research results, then you work on it regardless of the time of day. If I wanted to have a nine-to-five job, private life and sleep as well, I wouldn’t have pursued science.

Science is not a switch you can turn on when you are in the office or off when you are out of it. It is a way of life. If we are trying to solve a difficult and important problem, I will most likely work over the weekend. If I decide to spend one day with my family during the week, I can. This is the privilege of academia. In my opinion, this term “work-life-balance” is used excessively. As long as you are happy, and enjoy your work, then that joy translates to your personal life as well, and vice versa. Having such a life also means that your partner and family need to be very understanding.

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge in science today?

 

Climate change is happening. Carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of carbonaceous fuels need to be reduced otherwise we face severe consequences. It will be more expensive and awful to deal with the repercussions later, than to implement technologies to abate emissions in the present. We are on the right track, with the world gradually shifting towards renewable energy. It is pertinent to understand that there is no panacea. Reducing emissions has to be done using a mixture of various technologies, depending on the area, the economic conditions and resources. Optimising a single aspect of this problem, will not be able to save the planet, but an intelligent mix of technologies will. The transformation of the global energy mix from carbon fuels to cleaner ones is the biggest challenge I see today.

 

 

More information on Professor Dr. Behrendt and his research can be found here. (site in German).

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