in2science #6

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in2science #6

Insitute of Materials Research

The Godfather of Magnesium: Karl Ulrich Kainer

What motivates magnesium researcher Prof. Karl Ulrich Kainer?


Photo: HZG/Christian Schmid

Prof. Karl Ulrich Kainer is head of the Magnesium Innovation Centre MagIC at HZG. He is currently the most influential magnesium researcher in the world. He plans to enter retirement on February 1st, 2019.

Karl Ulrich Kainer has little time to spare. He’s just returned from China, where the world’s largest magnesium factory has recently opened; he was invited to say a few words at the opening. Now he’s sitting at booth E46 in hall 5 at the Hannover Messe and waiting: the minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein has announced he’ll be visiting at two o’clock this afternoon.

At HZG, Karl Ulrich Kainer is head of “MagIC”, the Magnesium Innovation Centre. But out in the world, he’s been given other titles: In German-speaking countries, he’s known as the “Magnesium Pope”, while in China and the USA, he is the “Godfather of Magnesium”. In 2018, a research conference held a complete symposium in his honour. How does one accomplish such a thing?

When Karl Ulrich Kainer speaks, he does so in the melodic accent of North Rhine-Westphalia: “My mother actually wanted me to become a tax official,” he says. And so, after completing his secondary education, he attended business college. “But I quickly realised that I just wasn’t cut out for it.” Instead, he completed a one-year electrical engineering internship, and after completing his vocational diploma, attended the Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences.

“Having learned a trade is something I’ve always benefitted from. Between semesters I’d work as an industrial electrician; laying cables, creating circuits, fixing machines – it was always fun for me.”

Such affinity for a technical trade goes hand in hand with scientific curiosity. After undergraduated in electrical engineering he became first in touch with metallurgy and materials technology which he continued to study. During his study in earning his degree, instead of seeking a job in the industry, Karl Ulrich Kainer went to the Claustal University of Technology, where he studied Materials Science. He worked with steel, copper, aluminium – metals became his bread and butter, one might say.

The element magnesium came to his attention more or less by chance. “Back then, it was a topic that the automobile industry was very interested in,” says Karl Ulrich Kainer. Of course it was: magnesium is extremely light, but also sturdy, it doesn’t cost much to recycle, and as a natural resource, it is available in almost unlimited quantities. This is why by the 1990s at the latest, the automobile industry saw great promise in magnesium – less weight, lower fuel consumption, fewer CO[sub]2[/sub emissions. In one of his first projects, Karl Ulrich Kainer worked with BMW to develop a fibre-reinforced magnesium component for a Formula 1 motor. “It wasn’t until years later that I found out the part I developed was used in at least one race.” His complete specialisation in magnesium would come with his postdoctoral qualification in 1996 and his appointment to Geesthacht in 1999, when he was 46. On January 1st, 2000, Karl Ulrich Kainer became head of his institute in Geesthacht. “Back then, I was my only employee.” Bit by bit, he would be joined by doctoral candidates, fulltime employees and division heads; his institute even got its own building.

When it comes to the development of sheet magnesium, Karl Ulrich Kainer sees MagIC as “number one in the world” today. This makes it all the more tragic that the casting and rolling facility needed for this was destroyed in a fire in the summer of 2017. “Once it’s rebuilt, it’s going to be an ‘Industry 4.0’ facility, equipped with sensors and able to be operated digitally. So perhaps there’s a silver lining to the whole affair after all.” Another topic currently undergoing research at MagIC that he finds especially exciting is magnesium surface coating. Magnesium is “highly reactive”, so how is it possible to use it to coat surfaces without corroding? Karl Ulrich Kainer believes this matter will have “extreme implications for the future”, given that whoever finds out how to protect magnesium from corrosion will certainly be able to do so for other materials. So how was he himself able to become the elder statesman of magnesium research?

"A lot of it had to do with luck. You make decisions without knowing if they’re ever going to bear fruit; you just make them because you think it’s a brilliant topic.“

Aside from a fascination with the subject matter and a certain perseverance, there may have been a third key factor: Karl Ulrich Kainer is a networker by nature. He organised a magnesium conference for the first time back in 1998, and today, members of the scientific community meet every three years: “That would be around 600 people from all over the world.” Listening to colleagues, speaking openly with them, and about issues that currently have no solution at that – Karl Ulrich Kainer’s guidelines sound like they’ve been taken straight from the handbook of a Silicon Valley start-up. Evidently, they worked just as well 20 years ago as they do today.

On February 1st, 2019, the Godfather of Magnesium plans to enter retirement. “I’ve got two options,” he says, “either the gradual phase-out – or going cold turkey.” Once, at the send-off for one of his colleagues at HZG, another colleague showed a picture of the steam locomotive that, in 1895 at Gare Montparnasse in Paris, ran through the buffer stop, across the platform, and through the wall of the station, where it landed on the street, looking like a beached whale. The warning, Karl Ulrich Kainer says, got through to him: “That’s definitely not how I want to feel on my first day of retirement.” He intends to stay on at HZG as a consultant, which may well help him bring the wild ride that has been his career to a somewhat gentler stop.

Author: Jochen Metzger
Portrait from in2science #6 (June 2018)