THE simplest way to describe what Andreas Markwitz and his team have done is that they've developed a ray gun that makes metal magically stronger.
A slightly more scientific description is that they shoot atoms into metals to create much stronger bonds within the metals. But it still makes them magically stronger.
For instance, his team at Gracefieldbased GNS Science at the bottom of the Wainuiomata Hill, can make aluminium as strong as stainless steel with their ion implantation technology.
If it sounds like alchemy, well, it probably is a bit. But it's already got real-world applications, Dr Markwitz says.
Tauranga's Page Macrae Engineering is using the technology to make superstrengthened titanium for safety knives for the crew of Team New Zealand. They'll each have two of the knives on them during racing to cut their way out of any entanglements during the America's Cup racing. In fact, the knives will be sharp and strong enough to cut through the hull.
All this technology is a bit of a coup for New Zealand, and the country can thank a bottle of red wine in Portugal that GNS Science was able to snare the good doctor, who up to that point was having a good career doing physics research in Europe.
For him it all started with an interest in the make-up of atoms while a student at high school, but things really took off when he got a fantastic physics teacher.
''Dr Neumann was outstanding, and in hindsight he should have been a professor at the university.''
Dr Markwitz had an interest in geography, and in plate tectonics, and he decided to study geophysics at university. But once he graduated he asked his professor where he would end up with his current career path and the options were likely to be drilling for oil in Saudi Arabia or studying earthquakes in Turkey, neither of which appealed.
Luckily for him he met a leading professor of nuclear physics at the university, Prof Klaus Bethge.
''We had 45 physics professors when I was studying there. Amongst them were 10 who were working in nuclear physics, from small-scale technologies such as ion implantation through to doing research at CERN with the Large Hadron Collider.''
He ended up with a masters degree in physics, studying impurities in microelectronic materials with mass spectrometry.
''I really liked looking at how atoms behaved in vacuums and what can be learned with that.'' He carried this research into his PhD studies where he benefited from the German academic tradition of pretty much leaving students to their own devices.
''They tell you 'I want to have a look into ceramics'. And that's it.
''So I go, how do I do it? What kind of technology am I using? PhD students in Germany have to have a lot of initiative and need to find their own path.
''You get your funding for five years, and they say 'Go'.''
For the first two years he worked on something that was unsuccessful at the time, but is now paying dividends with hip joint replacements.
''I wanted to create ceramic films and wanted to develop the technology to deposit ultra-thin films, perhaps 10 nanometre, 100 nanometre thin films of exceptional high purity for applications in microelectronic applications.''
He worked with the engineering/electronic conglomerate Siemens, which was interested in his work called ion sputtering - directing charged atoms from an ion source at a material. What happens when the atoms hit the material depends on how the different materials react to each other at an atomic level.
Dr Markwitz says due to contamination he couldn't get rid of (hydrogen and oxygen in particular), he wasn't happy with the results he was getting from ion sputtering so he changed tack. [However, GNS Science has been working with ion sputtering successfully to coat screw threads in artificial hip joints with ultra-thin layers of silver to reduce the risk of infection.]
But the next part of his PhD has directly translated into the work GNS Science is now doing.
''I switched over to ion implantation, which meant using a very low energy mass separated ion beam to insert atoms into the inner surface of silicon to create an ultra-thin silicon nitride film with extreme purity.
''I even managed to create nano structures at silicon surfaces and I got my first paper published in ifApplied Physics Lettersnf.''
Sticking with academia and research, Dr Markwitz did post-doctoral supervision of other PhD students and working in institutes in Frankfurt, Belgium and Dresden.
His work then focused on ''metallic interdiffusion with ion beams''.
''It sounds a bit of an odd topic .th.th. but essentially it is controlling the amount of interdiffusion that happens between metallic layers of things like gold and silver. It allows you to amalgamate the atoms at the interface.''
There was other high-level research, but the next key event, was his attendance at a conference in Portugal. He was 34 years old, had about 35 papers published in scientific journals and his career was going nicely.
''There I met my predecessor at GNS Science, Dr Ian Vickridge. He invited to help him drink a good bottle of red wine, and he talked me into applying for a job here as he was moving to France.
''So over the bottle of wine I agreed to apply. I didn't consider moving to New Zealand before, it had never crossed my mind.''
So he applied, had a week-long look around New Zealand, visited Victoria and Auckland universities, and returned home safe in the knowledge it would be his one and only trip to NZ.
But then GNS Science came up with what he said was an excellent job offer. The only trouble was, he hadn't talked about it with his wife, and there was also the matter of their sons, aged four and one.
But then the offer arrived.
''I said to her, what are we going to do? And she looked at me and said 'Yep, we'll go. I always wanted to go to New Zealand'.
''I said you never told me that. And she said, 'I never thought it was possible'. So she ultimately made the decision for us to move.''
That was in 1998, and by 2005 he was principal scientist with a team developing science for surface engineering and working on air pollution.
Thanks to Dr Markwitz' expertise and connections with industry and academia here and overseas, the GNS Science team's ion research capability is unique in the world. (It also didn't hurt that his old university offered all the ion research gear for $1, which GNS paid for to have shipped over.)
''The technology we have is so advanced we can now make purpose-built systems for industry or other research organisations.''
The ion implantation technology uses ions to disrupt and rearrange materials at an atomic level. (And yes, for the sake of the headline, Dr Markwitz is definitely New Zealand's Ion Man.) So for the titanium knives, positivelycharged nitrogen ions (an atom stripped of one of its electrons), are extracted from a plasma using electricity.
''The ions are accelerated to speeds of hundreds of kilometres per second. We have the technology to focus the beam of ions and to implant only the ion or isotope that we want to.
''The ions have so much kinetic energy that they can penetrate any physical material and there are no chemical boundaries to this technology.
''When the ion goes in it shakes up the atoms it is passing by. At the end of its path, it is knocking atoms around, like balls being bounced around in a pool game. The atoms are now out of place and available for chemical bonds. They're basically saying, 'where can I now bond to'.
Dr Markwitz says the ion, which is at this stage highly positive, ''clicks in'' with the host material.
''Now suddenly, for instance, when implanting nitrogen into titanium we are building up a layer of titanium nitride and the metal is toughened up.''
How much tougher?
''It can be orders of magnitudes. It totally depends on the combination, but we can harden aluminium to the strength of stainless steel by implanting scandium atoms, for example.
''A few per cent of scandium atoms in the surface are enough to create this hardness .th.th. and this makes all this technology very applicable to our New Zealand high-value manufacturing market.''
- © Fairfax NZ News