Prof. W.A. (Pim) Groen
Professor of SMART Materials at Aerospace Engineering (AE) in Delft. Also Programme Manager of Holst Centre, TNO.
Your private life?
‘I’m married to Nelleke Verweij. We’re the proud owners of two cats and take part in animal welfare activities in Eindhoven. My wife is IP support manager at Philips. We met when we were at secondary school and we both studied chemistry in Leiden. We enjoy travelling, walking and diving. We’ve been to many diving spots, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. We like cross-country skiing from time to time; in fact we’re heading for Switzerland again soon. We lived in the neighbourhood of Sittard for twenty years and have now been living in Eindhoven-Acht for three years.’
What is your favourite hobby?
‘Travelling! Last summer, we did a tour of west Canada and the USA. But we once combined a week in Hawaii, three weeks in New Zealand and week’s diving on the Fiji Islands. That was the best holiday ever! I’ve seen quite a lot the world also owing to my work. For instance, last February I was in Israel. I’m from a Christian background so I knew most places by name but actually walking around there was a fantastic experience. Another passion of mine is reading books on history; my bookshelves are full of them. I recently read a book about the history of Jerusalem, I’m now reading about the Middle East. The Second World War is another subject that interests me. I once considered studying history but my father advised against it. Now it’s a hobby. I also like visiting historic buildings whenever I get the chance.’
Your career in brief?
‘I completed my chemistry studies in Leiden in 1987 with solid chemical substances as my major. I went on to graduate on crystal structures and the properties of perovskites and that is still a constant in my work. Following a two-year trainee research internship for Philips in Leiden, I joined the Philips NatLab, a dream job for any technology lover. After two and a half years, I graduated on ceramic superconductors. I was then appointed as research ‘stayer’ at Philips Research. That was an important watershed in my career. After that, I carried out a number of R&D jobs at Philips and at Morgan Electroceramics, also abroad. In 2008 I made the transition to TNO Science & Industry, where I led the Materials Performance group. Since 2011, I’ve been Programme Manager at the Holst Centre for four days a week. At the request of Sybrand van der Zwaag, I have been giving various (master) lectures at TU Delft as a visiting scientist. And now I’ve been appointed as professor of SMART Materials for one day a week.
What has been the high point of your career?
‘There are several. My recent appointment at TU Delft naturally, but also my nomination as senior scientist at Philips. A fantastic recognition of my work as a scientist! I also once organised a two-day event for Taiwanese factory directors and marketing directors. That turned out really well because it taught me that, apart from science, there are still countless other exciting challenges to be explored. A central theme was reconciling the marketing department’s ideas with those of the researchers. That’s what applied science is all about and that’s extremely important for me. Science should lead to something concrete. I’ve actually got a fine example here in my bag: a keyboard for blind people which, thanks to piezo technology, operates on self-generated energy. Or this plastic piezo, which allows you to convert mechanical energy (ticking) into electricity (light).’
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?
‘Doing new things. But also the interaction with people and getting the best out of them. What I also like is looking beyond disciplines. I’m a chemist by profession but enjoy the interaction with other disciplines. It’s in that interface that the best things happen. And as I said already, it’s important that our work leads to something; that real results are realised and not only papers are produced. Papers are of course important but they are not the be-all and end-all. Fortunately, that’s the way they view things at both the Holst Centre and at TU Delft. The university in particular, with all its many disciplines, offers countless opportunities. And it’s together that you come up with the most surprising findings!’
Your greatest challenge at the moment?
‘At TU Delft we are developing smart materials: they respond to external stimuli such as pressure or temperature. In our work we try to come up with new applications for AE. We do the same at Holst, where we work on plastic electronics, flexible lighting (luminous foils) and roll-up solar cells. The greatest challenge at Holst is to develop a production technology to allow us to produce square metres of roll-up solar panels at low cost price and with a very low weight – this again links up with AE. We are working on this in a European project called Light Touch Matters in conjunction with Erik Tempelman of Industrial Design Engineering. The long-term challenge for Delft lies in developing materials that allow energy to be generated from the surroundings in order to create all kinds of battery-free applications. Energy from vibrations, for example. It’s not entirely new ground, as we’ve been generating energy from windmills for some time now. What I hope to accomplish with my chair is to use these smart materials to create even more intelligent materials.’
‘The major advantage of Delft is the abundance of engineering know-how available on many smart materials. It’s never about standard work but always concerns the integration of materials. A good example of that is Glare, the composite material invented here. Moreover, the aircraft and airline industry is very demanding. That compels you to be at the fore of material development. Apart from that it’s also quite a coincidence that I came here. We try to control everything in our lives but ultimately it’s a question of networking and meeting the right people. And what I really like is that AE in Delft is an extremely attractive and very popular degree programme, so it’s great to be a part of that.’
What is your best character trait?
‘I’m a real stickler. But at the same time that’s my pitfall and my worst quality; I can be rather impatient.’
What is your worst character trait?
‘As I said, I can be impatient, particularly if things don’t go fast enough. I want to move forward. And because I’m a perfectionist, I have a tendency to push. Not everyone appreciates that as there are of course people for whom this is just a job. That’s something I have to watch, even if I find it difficult. Of course I have learned to deal with my impatience but when I was younger I found that quite difficult. I often also want to do too much in too short a space of time. But as long as I’m enjoying myself then that isn’t a problem. That’s where I get my positive energy from.’
What topic should be high on the political agenda?
‘Innovation. Despite the top sector policy, that’s in a bad way in the Netherlands. Subsidies for universities, TNO, LNR and other institutions are being cut. In comparison to Germany for example, where I believe they have a far better approach: there’s a solid innovation policy and considerable investments are being made. It’s all very piecemeal in the Netherlands unfortunately and it’s unclear in which direction we’re headed. That’s a pity as innovation is exactly what’s called for at the moment. To survive within Europe, we should be breaking ground. For years we were among the technological top ten but it’s becoming increasingly hard to maintain that position. You can see it happening at large companies. Prestigious research departments are being forced to contract. It’s a terrible shame and a missed opportunity! The Netherlands should pitch for innovation!’
Do you have a source of inspiration?
‘I’m just in my element in technology, in all its facets. I’d also like to mention Dago de Leeuw. I was lucky enough to work alongside him at Philips Research. He is now working at the Max Planck Institute. Dago is a much quoted source and an extremely competent scientist. But Prof. Sybrand van der Zwaag also inspires me. Where Dago dives in from an awesome height, Sybrand plummets the depths and has succeeded in putting his field of expertise, Novel Aerospace Materials (NovAM), soundly on the map. That is an incredible feat.’
What’s your take on life?
‘Take the time to do enjoyable things even if that is quite difficult. I also believe in the importance of harmony. For instance, I’ve changed jobs quite a bit but I always made sure to wind things up properly. You have to be able to look each other in the eye as you’re bound to meet up again. I still regularly drop by Philips Research and that’s something that gives me great satisfaction.’