What makes research work special? For it is the satisfaction of discovering new things and being able to interpret what’s happening in nature (and in the lab!). But what is the point of doing all this? Can our research be applied, for example, can it save lives?
Well, our Scientist of the Week Dr. Matteo Gherardi, is a bright example of how we can take a step further. Matteo is a young, talented scientist while at the same time an entrepreneur. Read his interview below to find out why he chose plasmas over race car engineering (big loss for Ferrari, in my opinion)!
Dr. Matteo Gherardi’s exclusive interview to The Science and Engineering Cafe
1. Why and when did you decide to become a researcher? What made you choose plasma as your field of study? Did you consider other studies other than plasma science?
It was in my last year as a Master student. At that time, I was really interested in car engines; I had done my bachelor’s dissertation on the topic and I was thinking of specializing even more as a racing car engineer, aiming to find a job for one of the famous companies in the area (Emilia Romagna hosts companies such as Ducati, Ferrari, Lamborghini, just to name a few). Then I stumbled onto Prof. Colombo’s course on Industrial Applications of Plasmas and it just happened that I liked the topics even more. I felt that they were more challenging and I was attracted by the idea of working in a more unexplored field, where the research component was so dominant. I also felt that I might end up bringing a more significant contribution to the field. Also, at the time the IAP research group was involved in a European project on thermal plasma assisted synthesis of nanoparticles for battery applications. The project involved large multinational companies and so research oriented topics were merged with industrial oriented aims, creating a blend that was very attractive for me and provided significant stimuli and opportunities to grow as a researcher. I was definitely shaped by this experience, and today I still strongly believe that synergizing industrial and academic interests can provide an inestimable added value to a research activity.
2. Which of the papers that you authored are you most proud of and why? Also, please describe a time in your career that you had to make a difficult decision. How important is for a plasma researcher to explore a broad range of topics and a plethora of potential application areas?
My first paper: A two-dimensional nodal model with turbulent effects for the synthesis of Si nano-particles by inductively coupled thermal plasmas, Plasma Sources Sci. Technol. 21 (2012) 025001 (http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0963-0252/21/2/025001) still has a very high symbolical value for me. Beside being my first, it came at the end of one and a half year of research, my first 18 months as a PhD student! It crowned a journey with many ups and downs, successes and failures, certainties and doubts; at certain times I felt the topic of my research had grown stale to me and at others that I was stuck in a dead end road, the bottom point when I was on the verge of dropping out of the PhD program. Then, both Prof. Masaya Shigeta and Prof. Colombo played a huge role in my decision. Prof. Shigeta spent several weeks as a visiting Professor at UNIBO, providing so many valuable discussions and input, which helped me understand the importance of collaborations in research, and how much research provides opportunities for collaborations that make you grow both on the scientific and human side. Prof. Colombo understood earlier than me that modeling activities did not suit me the best (and this is to say the least) and proposed to share my time with a second topic: starting up new activities for the group in the field of atmospheric cold plasmas. This was definitely a turning point, I was astounded by the opportunity and charmed by the field, which is so interdisciplinary and provides countless opportunities for collaborations with scientists of different backgrounds. Chemists, physicists, material scientists, biologists, medical doctors, engineers and many others compose a mosaic of knowledge and work together on many different topics and applications to realize technical and scientific advancements, often having an important social impact; this represents my idea of science.
3. You are co-chairing the Gordon Research Seminar on Plasma Processing Science this year. Please describe some of the topics that will be presented. Which is your favorite conference and why?
I like the ISPC (International Symposium on Plasma Chemistry) the most, because it encompasses so many different subjects and has a strong bias towards applications. ICPM (International Conference on Plasma Medicine) and PSE (Plasma Surface Engineering) are also very strong candidates: these two conferences are much more oriented towards a specific subject, but have a really high scientific level. GRC-PPS (Gordon Research Conference on Plasma Processing Science) is worth mentioning as well, especially for the less usual scientific format; oral contributions are awarded to top scientists by invitation only and a large amount of time is dedicated to post-talk discussion. This year, for the fourth time, the GRC-PPS will be preceded by the GRS-PPS (Gordon Research Seminar on Plasma Processing Science), which is a 2-day meeting intended for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and junior scientists, to meet and discuss among their peers about their research and results in an informal environment. This year, I have the honor of co-chairing the event, together with Dr. Natalie Chernets from Jefferson University Hospitals. We dedicated a strong effort in putting together a diversified program, with contributions from young scientists from all around the world and touching many different subjects, from plasma physics and modeling to nanofabrication and plasma medicine. More details about the program can be found at: https://www.grc.org/programs.aspx?id=14428.
4. Has the technology that you are working on been commercialized?
Most of the activities I was working on during my PhD were collaborations with companies interested in commercializing the results of the IAP group’s research, and this could have been either a new product, such as a plasma torch for metal cutting, or a technical upgrade for improving the yield of an industrial process. When we started the new line of activities on atmospheric cold plasmas we decided not only to keep working with industries, but to create our own start-up company as well. Among the reasons driving our decision was to try to create a sustainable alternative to the academic career for the younger and future members of the IAP group. This was back in 2013 and we named the company AlmaPlasma (www.almaplasma.com). During the past three years we have been working with national and international companies and, in parallel, we have been developing our own products. Today, we are almost ready to market our first versatile and user-friendly high voltage pulse generator (AlmaPulse, shown in the image below) intended for research purposes on atmospheric cold plasmas. I will be very happy to provide further details to anyone interested.
Besides AlmaPulse, we are producing for Université Laval the first prototype of a Plasma Laboratory Unified System (AlmaPLUS, a rendering is reported below), comprising plasma sources, electrical generator, CNC system, polymerization unit and user control unit, and developing plasma solutions for biomedical applications, particularly in the biomaterials and dental fields.