Norbert Huber: The opposite of heavy metal
What motivates materials researcher Prof Norbert Huber?
Foto: HZG/Christian Schmid
Prof. Norbert Huber is a director at the Institute for Materials Research.
He attributes a few factors to his career path: southern German industriousness, a passion for technology and an impressive capacity to seize and develop at least seven random opportunities in his life. When talking with Norbert Huber (49), it quickly becomes obvious in his intonations that he does not come from Hamburg. His original home is a village close to Baden-Baden. Even early on, he was interested in technology. He crafted little machines and his own radio with building blocks that his uncle gave him—this is when opportunity number one opened up for him. Huber attended secondary school and had a promise of an apprenticeship as an electrician. Everything that followed he ascribes to random opportunity number two: Norbert Huber played tenor horn in a music club. His instrument teacher Fridolin Boos said to him: “You must make more of yourself!” In his last year of high school, he discovered a new passion for mechanical devices, for “things that were visibly interlocked and worked together” so he decides to study mechanical engineering.
Before that, Norbert Huber still needed to perform his military service, where he, opportunity number three, joins the music corps. “I was able to play music every day for an entire year there; it was a dream.” When he returned he became the vice conductor of his original music club. “And this taught me early on how to organise and lead a large group. That is something that one is rarely taught in science.”
His plan was actually to find a job in industry. However, Huber’s girlfriend, now wife, recommended a lecture on materials research to him – thus opening up opportunity number four. “I liked it so much that I chose it for my optional subject obligatory exam. After the exam, the professor asked me directly if I wanted to do my doctorate with him.”
Norbert Huber accepted. Even the subject of his doctorate was already set: his professor had just obtained a new device for his institute, which no-one had explored in depth yet – opportunity number five. It was a nanoindenter. With the help of an extremely sharp diamond tip, he needed to measure the hardness and stiffness of thin layers, a procedure that Huber’s research and that of his institute still support today.
For his postdoctoral qualification at the research centre in Karlsruhe, it was a chance that helped him – this was the sixth one: at a guest lecture he heard of machine learning, which was a new procedure at the time.
"I immediately knew that this method had a place in the future."
Since that day, Norbert Huber has combined his experimental research with theoretical models and artificial intelligence. After an intermediate position in Stanford and a position as department head in Karlsruhe in 2006, Norbert Huber arrived in Geesthacht – opportunity number seven. Because when he applies, he already has an offer from the University of Siegen. What was his quickly developed concept? “I wanted to closely link experimentation as well as modelling together. The reciprocal fertilisation of experiment and theory – I find it incredibly rewarding. Above all, I believe that new ideas tend to appear where different disciplines meet each other.” The institute also follows a well-defined principle:
"We want to develop - especially in the field of aviation - innovative, light-weight structures that weigh at least twenty percent less than the current average."
Materials such as aluminium, magnesium or titanium play an important role. Weight is saved, in the way components are connected to each other. An example of this is friction stir welding, which is researched at his institute. This process does not require rivets or overlapping structures or sealants. It also avoids rivet holes, which often lead to cracks.
How can damage to the fuselage of an aircraft be detected more effectively? The answer is something similar to his lifelong project: since the 90s, his colleagues – especially the department head Jörg Weißmüller – have been researching a very special material: nanoporous gold. “It is an open-pore material, like a sponge, that creates an electrical signal when it is deformed,” Huber explains. The vision is that nanoporous gold – or equivalent titanium – could cover the surface of an airplane in ten or fifteen years’ time and thereby give very precise indications of when cracks appear on the airplane. “To see this idea of structural health monitoring actually take off one day would make me very proud.”
Alongside his work as institute director and professor, Norbert Huber is also a member of the board for a collaborative research centre he co-founded and is the director of the Centre for High-Performance Materials. The tinkerer from the edge of the Black Forest has become a manager of science. How does this fit in with his earlier passion – his fascination for gears? “When a cogwheel interlocks with another, I find it fascinating whether it happens in a machine or in an organisation. Making complex structures work together, that is its own type of science and what I am intensely involved in.”
Today he is not quite without any concrete tinkering: Norbert Huber got an old tenor horn working again. “I said to myself: let’s see if I can get it going again. I took it apart completely, soldered the holes and polished it. Now it can be played again. And you know what? It sounds really good.”
Prof. Norbert Huber plays "Mignong" from Ludwig v. Beethoven on his self-restored tenor horn. Video: HZG/Christian Schmid
Author: Jochen Metzger
Portrait from in2science #5 (December 2017)