Piero Colonna

08 NOVEMBER 2013


Piero Colonna


Professor of Propulsion and Power in the faculty of Aerospace Engineering.

Your private life?

‘I was born in Milan in (1965). I am married to Mirella, who also hails from Italy, and we have two daughters, Flavia (10) and Julia (7). We have lived in Delft since 2002, when I was appointed as assistant professor. Obviously, it was a major step for my wife, because of the strong family bonds in Italy and the good job she had as a management assistant. Fortunately, she immediately fell in love with Delft on the day we went to buy an apartment and she also found a good job as a secretary at TU Delft. She is now a stay-at-home mum, and we spend as much time as we can together with our family. We enjoy visiting places, but also spend much time in our garden. We cycle a great deal, because we have made a deliberate choice not to have a car. Cycling fits in with my views on energy, sustainability and the environment and simplifies day-to-day life. We never have to find a place to park!

What is your favourite pastime?

‘Skiing! I used to be a ski instructor and it is now a passion that I share with my daughters. In the winter, we always head into the Italian Alps where we own a cozy chalet. Mountain hiking is also a favourite pastime. Last summer we even took the children with us and camped in the wilderness. An amazing experience! I also enjoy sailing, reading, photography, gardening, but above all music. I played the piano and love listening to classical music - it is something I grew up with. I enjoy going to concerts as well. I also love other kinds of music and I am a Pink Floyd fan.’

Your career in brief?

‘After studying Aerospace Engineering in Milan (1991) and Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University in the US (1995), I obtained my PhD in Energy Engineering (Milan, 1996). I then held a number of different positions. In 2002, I became assistant professor at TU Delft (3mE) and I lectured Thermodynamics and Modelling and Simulation of Energy Conversion Systems. In 2005, I received a VIDI grant for my research into the gas dynamics of dense vapour and supercritical fluids. Since 1 September, I have been professor of Propulsion and Power at AE. I am working on new green concepts in the field of aircraft engines and on-board systems for energy conversion.’

What has been the high point of your career?

‘There have been several. The fact that I have become a professor, for example, which I never thought would happen. I owe the success of my academic career to two fantastic professors I was fortunate enough to meet in Milan (Gianfranco Angelino) and later in Stanford (Bill Reynolds). Both have now sadly passed away, but I try to continue their life's work in their honour. Another positive thing: until the start of 2000, renewable energy sources and energy conversion were not seen as interesting subjects for research and grants were hard to come by. Nevertheless, I persevered and that is now paying off. Green energy is all the rage and I am at the heart of what is happening. For example, at the start of October I chaired the ASME International Conference on ORC power systems (Organic Rankine Cycle) in Rotterdam. The conference attracted worldwide interest and focuses on the generation of energy from renewable sources and waste heat. It is good to achieve recognition! We now continue our more fundamental research into gas dynamics, which is playing an important role in the design of special ORC turbines. Finally, I would also like to mention the VIDI grant (2005) I had the honour of receiving and the fact that I have been chosen as the best teacher of the Master's programmes SPET and FM twice in a row. That was both moving and inspiring at the same time.’

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?

‘The contact with students. I enjoy giving lectures, but find the contact with young, talented people especially motivating for my other activities. Getting the opportunity to work with so many gifted colleagues is also something I very much appreciate. We also get together outside of work. And then, of course, there is the variety: my work is never boring. Admittedly, the administrative aspects are slightly less exciting, but I realise they are necessary in order to make dreams and ideas a reality. But I prefer to spend my time thinking, doing research and teaching.’

Your greatest challenge at the moment?

‘Expanding our laboratory in a short space of time. The challenge is organising this as effectively as possible without going over the top. That means sometimes saying no, which is not one of my strengths. We also need to define the areas in which we can excel as a lab. It is my job to provide the right direction for this. I am curious to see how I can use the experience I have acquired in the down-to-earth world of terrestrial energy within the dynamic aerospace environment. But I have a good feeling about it. The aerospace industry is open to innovation, so I am not afraid of risky new ideas.’

Why Delft?

‘It was partly down to choice and partly a matter of luck. When I returned to Italy after my US experience, I really wanted to work abroad again. I had heard enthusiastic stories about TU Delft from a friend who worked at AE. So I decided to look for vacancies in my specialist area in Delft and there was just one. Delft also seemed to be a very international environment, so I decided to apply. Before I knew it, I had been appointed and was in Delft. It was obviously meant to be. ’

What is your best character trait?

‘I have a strong inner strength and always think that the best is yet to come. I am also able to pass this drive on to other people.’

What is your worst character trait?

‘My wife sometimes says that I am absent-minded or scatter-brained. It has something to do with my character: if I am concentrating on something interesting, I find it hard to think about other things. I am not quite able of multi-tasking, as she is…’

What topic should be high on the political agenda?

‘The worldwide energy problem. Politicians have short-term agendas when they should be really looking 30 to 40 years ahead. This is also an issue in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has extensive natural gas resources, but also needs to prepare about the future. That still happens far too rarely. I try not to worry about it, but it is a matter for concern. That is why, in my work, I am committed to renewable energy and power and propulsion systems that work without fossil fuels. Achieving a sea-change is difficult because there are major economic interests at stake. It is not really about the technology, but primarily a political issue.’

Do you have a source of inspiration?

‘The professors I mentioned earlier, but also a teacher of Italian language and literature at my secondary school. I firmly believe that certain encounters in one's life make a real difference to the person you become. When I think of these three extraordinary people, I feel a great social responsibility for the young people I work with myself. That is also a great source of inspiration for me.’

Your life philosophy?

‘Everything I do I do in the hope that it will be of use to others.’