Spark Award for sustainable composites

Winners of the Spark Award 2021: Vanessa Wood, ETH Vice President for Knowledge

Winners of the Spark Award 2021: Vanessa Wood, ETH Vice President for Knowledge Transfer and Corporate Relations, with Paolo Ermanni, Nicole Aegerter, Christoph Schneeberger and Shelly Arreguin. (Photo: ETH Zurich / Oliver Bartenschlager)

Load-bearing, lightweight and now also recyclable: researchers led by Professor Paolo Ermanni were presented with the Spark Award in recognition of an innovative process for production of sustainable composite materials. ETH Zurich awarded the prize to their promising invention, with this year marking the tenth time the award has been given.

On Monday evening, ETH Zurich celebrated a small anniversary: the university presented the Spark Award - awarded for the most innovative and economically promising innovation of the past year - for the tenth time. "It’s an indication of how many innovative ideas there are at ETH from year to year," says Silvio Bonaccio, head of ETH Technology Transfer, which organises the award ceremony each year. Despite the pandemic, a total of 115 innovative technologies were recorded at ETH Zurich in 2020, of which 20 were short-listed for the award, with five reaching the final round. "The jury had to check and evaluate a huge range of inventions," says Bonaccio of the selection process.

Ultimately, it was the team led by Paolo Ermanni, ETH Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering, that won the Spark Award 2021. Together with Christoph Schneeberger, Nicole Aegerter, Shelly Arreguin and Professor Joanna Wong, Ermanni has developed a process that enables sustainable, recyclable fibre composites to be produced at low cost. The prize was presented by Vanessa Wood, ETH Vice-President for Knowledge Transfer and Corporate Relations.

Although the researchers are firmly convinced of the potential of their new technology, they nevertheless find it difficult to describe their invention: "The innovation is primarily in the production process, rather than in a tangible product," explains Schneeberger. For this reason, the researchers were surprised to win the award. "Perhaps the focus on climate change meant the sustainability of our approach tipped the balance," speculates Ermanni.

To put their promising idea into practice, Schneeberger, Aegerter and Ermanni have established the project "Antefil Composite Tech" . Next, they want to carry this over into a spin-off. "Our process is scalable and therefore suitable for mass production," asserts Schneeberger. The intention is to use it primarily in the production of large-scale structures that must be lightweight and capable of bearing extremely heavy loads, such as rotor blades for wind turbines or load-bearing vehicle components.

Putting the idea into words

Guest speaker Mattias Ivarsson described what it takes to turn a good idea into a successful company. In 2012, he was among the finalists for the very first Spark Award. Today, he is CEO and founder of biotech start-up Inositec AG, which develops treatments to combat arteriosclerosis. What’s unusual about the company is that it has no laboratories of its own, but instead works with specialist research institutes and companies as needed. "In a sense, we are a virtual biotech company," says Ivarsson. This, he explains, lowers costs.

In addition to technical expertise and finances, it is particularly important to be able to describe the idea vividly in just a few words. In addition, an entrepreneur must have negotiating skills and knowledge of the market.

"It’s a journey of discovery," he concludes, drawing a comparison between foundation of a spin-off and a stepladder heading up into the clouds. There are a lot of new things to learn, but you also have to be careful to ensure the ladder does not tip over. And sometimes you need to take a step back before climbing further.

The winning technology:

Making lightweight construction sustainable: Composite materials are everywhere, from medical implants to planes. However, most composites are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. Researchers led by Ermanni have now developed an innovative process for production of fibre-reinforced composites. The materials are recyclable and can be used cost-effectively for the first time with the new process. Thanks to their high load-bearing properties, they are particularly suitable for large-scale components, such as wind turbine rotor blades.

The finalists:

Active ingredients reach their destination: Many medicines are water-insoluble and cannot be transported via the bloodstream. This means they do not reach the place where they are needed and are therefore ineffective in treating disease. Thomas Edwardson and Donald Hilvert have developed a multi-layered protein cage to transport water-insoluble active ingredients. The protein cage encapsulates the active ingredients and delivers them directly to the diseased cells.

Cancer cells kill themselves: When a larva turns into a fly, certain tissue parts of the larva die off through a targeted process of cell death. A research group led by Renato Paro is drawing on this process for a cancer treatment. It has discovered an important RNA molecule that is involved in regulation of the cell death. The RNA shows widespread effectiveness against various human cancer cell types and is simple in its application and production.

Making illnesses reliably detectable: Looking for biomarkers in patients’ blood is often reminiscent of the proverbial needle in a haystack. Paolo Arosio and his research group want to simplify this. They have developed synthetic polymer-based drops that can enclose and enrich selected molecules in the blood due to their consistency. Alternatively, the drops can be used in the production of medicines, where they remove and enclose the active ingredient from a reaction mixture.

Making data travel faster: Electro-optical modulators are essential in our communications landscape. They convert electrical signals into light signals. Until now, these modulators have been large and required a lot of energy. Rachel Grange, Marc Reig Escalé, Fabian Kaufmann and David Pohl have developed a powerful and energy-efficient modulator the size of a chip, made of lithium niobate and with a multi-layered structure. Thanks to their new production method, the researchers have been able to work with the material on a nanoscale with high precision.

Inken De Wit

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