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Making a Difference with Green Energy Research at DIFFER

4 min read · By Academic Positions

“Science is a collaborative effort. The combined results of several people working together is often much more effective than could be that of an individual scientist working alone,” remarked John Bardeen after receiving his second Nobel Prize in Physics. This collaborative ethos is central to the research strategy at the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER). The institute has a strong focus on groundbreaking research into fusion energy and solar fuels with the ultimate goal of ensuring that clean energy will one day be available for everyone.

Dr Martin van Breukelen, the institute’s manager, believes that sharing DIFFER’s unique facilities with others will help accelerate this transition to a greener future. “By collaborating with others in the field, we can develop new materials and new devices to speed up our energy transition so there’s less demand for fossil fuels,” he says.  

Dr. Martin van Breukelen, DIFFER's institute manager.

Martin wants researchers to know that they’re welcome to use DIFFER’s state-of-the-art facilities, like the Magnum-PSI and the Ion Beam Facility. The Magnum-PSI (Plasma Surface Interface) is the only facility in the world that allows researchers to mimic the plasma conditions found in nuclear fusion reactors near the reactor wall. The Ion Beam Facility can be used to explore the properties of materials and to analyse defects caused by ion irradiation. While the Ion Beam Facility is useful for both solar fuel and fusion energy research, many other diverse parties are also interested in its applications – for example, the electronics industry can use it to test components and the Dutch flower industry sees potential to create new varieties of flowers.

At present, guest researchers, both Dutch and international, use the equipment at DIFFER to carry out measurements for both short and longer periods of time, and Martin would like to encourage more scientists to avail of their facilities. He explains, “The idea is that people come to us, and we have a scientist or technician on site to help them do their measurements. We also help with the analysis, because we have the experience to know if the machine is behaving properly and can check the data. We'll also be involved in the publication of the research as co-authors, so we’ll support the research at both the scientific and technical levels.”

Plans are afoot to expand DIFFER’s measurement facilities in the coming years. It’s going to host and run a Pulsed Laser Deposition (PLD) Facility for both academia and industry. The facility will be used for the fabrication and investigation of thin films for energy applications, such as electrolysers, fuel cells, and batteries. The Ion Beam Facility is also going to be upgraded. Martin says, “We’re expanding the beam line so that we can profile elements in situ. Before, we always used to do it offline. So, for example, if we’re looking at plasma hitting a material, we will be able to analyse directly what the effect was during the exposure.”

Ion Beam Facility: Photographer Bart van Overbeeke (copyright DIFFER)

DIFFER isn’t just a large scale research infrastructure laboratory, scientists working there carry out their own research too. Martin points out that scientists at DIFFER have the advantage of working with both internal and external users. This allows them to foster new collaborations and get fresh ideas for their research. He says, “We offer a really nice work environment with lots of opportunities. We’re also very flexible which allows for a good work-life balance. We have similar advantages to academia where you can steer your own research and that gives people a lot of freedom.”  

Martin joined DIFFER earlier this year bringing with him a vast amount of experience managing large-scale research infrastructure. He appreciates the friendly atmosphere at the institute and that everybody is working towards a common goal. There’s also a lively academic environment because of its close proximity to the local university in Eindhoven. Master’s and PhD students often frequent the facilities and many staff teach at the university. In fact, the whole area is brimming over with technical knowledge as DIFFER is located in a region known as Brainport because of its high concentration of technology companies and educational institutions. He says, “We collaborate a lot with industry too, and although we’re doing fundamental energy research, it has a socioeconomic relevance, particularly now with high energy prices. It’s a hot topic and also will be in the future. I think it’s very nice to be able to contribute to that.”

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DIFFER wants to conduct leading fundamental research in the fields of fusion and solar fuels, in close partnership with academia and industry.

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Published 2022-11-15

Featured employer

DIFFER wants to conduct leading fundamental research in the fields of fusion and solar fuels, in close partnership with academia and industry.

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Featured researcher

Martin van Breukelen

Dr. Martin van Breukelen is the institute manager of the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

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