The photon is our strength - Interview with Bernd Rech

Prof. Bernd Rech © HZB/M. SETZPFANDT

Since the 1st of May 2017, Bernd Rech has been the acting Scientific Director of HZB. »lichtblick« spoke with him about his most important duties, the strengths of HZB, and surprises the job held in store.

Professor Rech, when you were approached about provisionally assuming the directorship of the centre, did it take long before you said yes?

Bernd Rech: I talked it over for a fairly long time with my family before saying yes. I had been an institute director for eleven years, and now I’m the acting Scientific Director, too. The new position is very exciting, and I am getting to know HZB from a different side now. It’s fun gaining an insight into the whole spectrum of research and the organisation. The change of perspective helps to see certain things, which one might not have agreed with as an institute director, in a new light.

Have you already worked out all the priorities?

As spokesperson for the Helmholtz “renewable Energies” programme, I am quite familiar with the energy sector. I have also been following the developments at BESSY II very closely. New to me, though, is the complex of topics surrounding BER II, including its dismantling. The most important task for us right now is to prepare the upcoming review as best we can. We have to write impressive reports and then present ourselves in an excellent light. It is essential for us to be united in representing our fields. And we have to play up the fact that we, as a centre, embody a unique bridge between the large facilities and energy research.

What must we do to show our best side during the review?

It is important for us to maintain very open, targeted communication internally. We need a clear distribution of tasks, and we have to genuinely share our scientific knowledge within the centre. Organising and promoting this communication is one of the core tasks I have put myself up to.

What is your approach to this, exactly?

We have started discussion rounds with the department spokespeople and coordinators, to be held at four-weekly intervals. We are also planning a closed-door meeting, where current scientific results will be discussed in compact form. At these talks, we want to decide which research topics we should continue to pursue in the second phase of POF III, and what we want to focus on as we move into POF IV. This is because we not only have to prepare the coming intermediary review, but also continue to plan our research. This process is highly complex, and will take more than two years. During this time, we have to define focuses and embrace international developments, because science is alive and dynamic.

Is there any experience you gained from being institute director that is useful in your new duties?

At the Institute for Silicon Photovoltaics (E-IS), we were always very open to introducing new developments from science. The Photovoltaic Competence Centre Berlin (PVcomB) and the energy research lab EMIL, for example, were co-initiated by E-IS in a big way. We adopted the topic of perovskite solar cells early on, which three junior groups are now promoting, and are building up the Helmholtz Innovation Lab HySPRINT. What I mean is, it’s always been my job to think ahead about topics and to develop strategies for how to turn them into organisational structures. I will now be doing this not only for the “Institute for Silicon Photovoltaics”, but for the entire centre.

HZB has gone through an extensive strategic planning process over the years. What do you feel are the strengths in HZB’s research?

The photon source BESSY II plays a crucial role in our strategy, with its upgrade to BESSY VSR and even the development of a concept for BESSY III. In a nutshell, one could say our strength is everything that has to do with the photon, the particle of light. On the one hand we have the development and operation of the photon source, including the accelerator physics to go with it, and on the other hand we have the use of photons and related electrochemical processes in materials research. Charge transfer plays a role in many places, for example in energy conversion or in materials used in information technologies. Plus, we have also developed outstanding expertise in materials science here through the research with neutrons at BER II.

So, photon sources and energy-related use of photons are two sides of the same coin at HZB?

Yes, and they both shine here. With the construction of EMIL and other experimental stations at BESSY II, we have already established a bridge between energy-related material and component development and the facility itself. This bridge can already be seen clearly in the topics of “solar cells” and “solar fuels”. And chemical energy conversion is another field that raises many questions which the photon source BESSY II is excellently suited to researching. This subject area fits very well into the Berlin landscape, and we can continue to establish it with our partners – the universities, the Max Planck Society and other institutions – and integrate it into our systems approach.

How do you define this systems approach?

By that, I mean we approach materials research as a system. There is a desired property one wishes to introduce, for example, into a thin-film material. In order to find the best approach, we can model and simulate how the material behaves. Then, we develop a certain synthetic pathway and immediately verify by analytics whether the desired property has been achieved, or whether and why there were any deviations. Working from these results, we start the whole thing again and optimise the process. We can follow this approach at HZB because we not only have great analytical opportunities now, but we have also gained expertise in synthesis and established cooperative partnerships in theory and simulation. It is just as important to see the energy system as a whole, in order to identify opportunities and dead ends early on, and draw the right conclusions from it.

Will you be working in both locations?

I will be in Adlershof slightly more often because my institute is located there, but I will also regularly be in Wannsee. Without a doubt, as scientific director, I am responsible for the entire centre, and I will look after both locations. The two complement each other well, and have exciting projects and future plans that I will be watching closely. The biggest challenge for us all will be tackling the major projects that are pending while also prioritising new projects, where our strength in science has to come first.

Have you already had any surprises as scientific director?

Not really, but I am delighted at all the great support I have received from the people in the centre. Many colleagues have come to me and offered their support at various levels. And I am very much looking forward to getting to know new employees and projects.

Interviewed by Ina Helms.