TU Clausthal and the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (Berlin)
Professor since 2010
The inquiring mind
From TU Clausthal to zero gravity
Professor Jens Günster’s usual places of work – Clausthal-Zellerfeld and Berlin – lie at around 560m and only 120m above sea level. But for his research project, the post-doctorate physicist left that comfort zone for an altitude of 4,000m: During various parabolic flights, he and his team investigated the effects of zero gravity on powder-based additive manufacturing. What may seem straightforward at first glance presents a major challenge in terms of technology and physics. The objective was to manufacture tools using a specially created 3D printer under weightless conditions. To that end, the scientists conducted a total of 124 parabolic flights in four days. Each time, weightlessness only lasted for 22 seconds – an extremely short period, during which everything had to be fitted in.
Research as a technical and physical challenge
Such missions put great strain, for example, on the human body. For non-astronauts, they create a lot of work for the mechanisms controlling their balance. Moreover, we previously had only theoretical knowledge about how the specially built 3D-printing system would work in conditions of zero gravity. Added to that were the stringent safety requirements in the aircraft. Nothing could be permitted to escape from the system, and ceramic powder had to be used in place of the metallic powder usually used, in order to avoid the risk of explosion. Against all the odds, the experiments were a complete success. The positive results represent a giant leap for space research, as the process being tested is designed to enable astronauts to make things like wrenches themselves on board. “We’ll be back in the Airbus again in March 2018, to perfect the process a touch more – but on the whole we were overjoyed with the outcome,” relates Jens Günster, who – when he’s not currently in the air – works as a professor of high-performance ceramics at TU Clausthal and at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Berlin. In collaboration with the German Aerospace Center, they make up a trio of institutions doing pioneering work in the field of 3D printing in zero gravity.
From physicist to expert on high-performance ceramics
No one could have predicted that Professor Günster would someday be one of the few people who experience this special form of travel in the interests of research. It all started with a classic physics degree at TU Clausthal, which eventually led to doctorate studies. His journey then took him to Japan and the United States, where he worked as a junior academic for two and a half years. After his post-doc studies at the Institute of Non-Metallic Materials in 2002, he went to work for Oerlikon in Switzerland as a materials specialist before being appointed by both the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing and TU Clausthal, jointly, as a professor of high-performance ceramics. “That constellation feels like a gift,” Jens Günster reports, because of how highly he values the combination of teaching duties and research. He takes enormous pleasure in infecting his undergrad and doctorate students with his enthusiasm for research. “Collaborating with those young people is really very motivating, and it often creates a real crucible of ideas.”
The spirit of Clausthal brings everyone together
Commuting between the two cities is admittedly rather arduous, but Professor Günster also appreciates the benefits. In Clausthal, he finds that special spirit fascinating. Just about anywhere in the world, he says, you come across people who once studied here. Talking to them uncovers a very special bond. Places, streets, experiences generate shared memories and, even retrospectively, a sense of community. “I would describe Clausthal as a big team,” the Mecklenburg native concludes. It is in this spirit that he teaches these days as well. Teachers’ relationships with the students are personal, all involved know one another, and know each other’s individual strengths and weaknesses. What is particularly important to him is communicating on an equal footing, with hierarchical structures taking a back seat.
Commuting as a way of life
Although Jens Günster spends more time in Berlin than in Clausthal, he identifies the town in the Harz as his chief home. Nor did he ever consider moving to one of the nearby towns like Goslar or Osterode. In his view, one should fully immerse oneself in the Clausthal experience. Besides, his family can no longer imagine moving away. For him, both places are special in their own way, and the combination of the two is precisely what appeals to him; “I get a little melancholy when I’ve been here for a few days and need to go to Berlin. But it’s the same story the other way around,” Jens Günster laughs. Perhaps it’s exactly that mixture that continually drives and inspires him as a researcher, scientist, and family man...