History of the Department of Materials

Main content

Materials Science becomes an academic discipline

During the post-war period, the modernisation of technology was primarily characterized by the development of materials. It soon became evident that, compared to countries such as the UK and the US, Switzerland needed to put some effort into catching up in this field. ETH Zurich was no exception, even though it had been home to several materials pioneers, for example Hermann Staudinger (Professor in General Chemistry 1912-1926, Nobel prize 1953), the founder of Macromolecular Chemistry. However, it was not until the election of Prof. Piero Pino that macromolecular science, and in particular polymer synthesis, was to receive the attention it deserved. Metallurgists like Robert Durrer (Professor in Metallurgy 1943-1961) and Alfred von Zeerleder (Professor in Light Metals and Electro Metallurgy 1945-1957) supplied important impulses to the domestic metals industry and made it possible to provide an education in their specific field, with an emphasis on the practical side. Their teaching was swiftly integrated into the chemistry department. For mechanical engineers, courses in Materials and Technology had long been part of their basic studies; in 1967 an additional course was offered as “Advanced Materials Science”, following the trend in foreign countries to include physics into materials science teaching and to emphasize the analysis of materials behavior. This combination led to the birth of a new discipline, initially referred to as “Physical Metallurgy” spreading rapidly following the adoption of the more precise term, “Materials Science”.

Foundation of the Materials Science curriculum at ETH Zurich

The chemistry department accepted the change by creating a whole new three-part course program, designed to train mechanical engineers—who were required to take a substantial courseload in metallurgy—alongside chemists and chemical engineers. Since this course attracted only a limited number of students over the following 10-year period, and since industry was expressing a need for experts in modern materials science, it was clear that an entirely new concept had to be found. Joachim Meissner, Prof. in Polymer Physics since 1974, and a graduate in Physical Metallurgy, offered to work out the necessary course strategy. Coordinating the new concept within the structure of the ETH proved challenging, and the creation of a new department was found to be the solution. 1935 was the last time this had been done at the ETHZ, with the formation of the Department of Electrical Engineering.

The decision to place the undergraduate student program into an independent department took place in 1981, during financially difficult times for the ETHZ. The expectation was that about 25 students per year would enrol. After a few years, the average number of enrolling students regularly surpassed the goal, reaching 55 in 1999. A personal view presented in German by Prof.em. Joachim Meissner can be found here (PDF, 157 KB).

The first decade - Building up the Department

The academic responsibility for the teaching program in the new department was taken on by those Professors at the ETHZ who already were involved in teaching and research. These included Prof. Markus Speidel (Metals and Metallurgy) and Prof. Joachim Meissner (Physical Polymers). They were joined by associates—representing scientific or technological neighbors, including Prof. Gernot Kostorz (Applied Physics), Prof. Hans Böhni (Corrosion) and Prof. Josef Reissner (Plastic Deformation). The support of about twenty highly competent lecturers from industry and universities was necessary to realize the vision of the new course program and the education of Materials Science professionals. In 1988 Prof. Ulrich W. Suter extended the Department’s polymer chemistry research and teaching activities, and Prof. Ludwig Gauckler added his field of Ceramics. An active research program in these areas was not only the essential underpinning for a modern curriculum, but it also offered the students the opportunity to work for a PhD in one of the three major Materials classes.

The second decade – Extending the Scope

To remain on an equal footing with the best Institutes of Technology and current industrial practice, it was necessary to adjust the curriculum within a few years, resulting in carefully enlarging and renewing the faculty staff within the affordable limits. Important steps in modernization were carried out by Prof. Erich Wintermantel (Professor 1992-1998) who introduced the area of Biocompatible Materials, by Prof. Nicholas Spencer (Professor since 1993), who added the fields of Surface Science and Technology, and Prof. Paul Smith (Professor since 1995) who contributed expertise in Polymer Technology.

Prof. Hans-Christian Öttinger took over responsibilities in the area of Polymer Physics upon the retirement of Prof. Meissner in 1996, and in 1997 the Department was reinforced by the hiring of Prof. Edgar Stüssi in the field of Biomechanics, as well as by Prof. Sannakaisa Virtanen in the area of Metallic High Performance Materials. Prof. Jeffrey Hubbell brought additional strength in biomaterials in the same year, and the Department was joined by Prof. Pier-Luigi Luisi (Supramolecular Chemistry) from the Department of Chemistry. The most recent arrival in the Department is Prof. Walter Steurer (Crystallography), who joined our Department from the Department of Earth Sciences in 2003.

The move to Hönggerberg

The turn of the new millennium has witnessed immense changes in the Department, with the departure of Prof. E. Wintermantel for Munich, the promotion of Prof. U.W. Suter to Vice President for Research at the ETH, the transfer of Professor J. Hubbell to the EPF-Lausanne, and the retirement of Professors M.O. Speidel and P.L. Luisi. Great change brings with it great opportunity, and we are currently involved in the most significant hiring phase since the founding of the department. Assistant Prof. Jörg Löffler (Metal Physics and Technology) arrived in summer 2003, followed by Profs. Viola Vogel (Biologically Orientated Materials) and Dieter Schlüter (Polymer Synthesis) in early 2004 and Assistant Prof. Ralph Spolenak (Nanometallurgy) in summer 2004.
Also in summer 2004 the department moved to the Hönggerberg under one roof for the first time!

The current activities and composition of the Department of Materials are detailed further in the rest of our website.

Prof. Dr. emer. Eduard Freitag

(Translation: Ms. Ursula Erhardt; Pictures: ETH-Library and other sources; Editing, picture research, and further contributions: Prof. P. Uggowitzer, Prof. N.D. Spencer, Jennifer Davidson, Dr. Sara Morgenthaler)

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Tue Jul 25 00:32:00 CEST 2017
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