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Interview Marco de Baar: a bumpy way up

Marco de Baar always knew that he would eventually hold a senior position in research. But he never thought this would be possible at DIFFER, the institute that he has called his home since 2007. Nevertheless, he is now DIFFER’s scientific director, albeit in a challenging year.

It seemed to be an unwritten rule at DIFFER that directors always came from outside of nuclear fusion research. That way, they could bring fresh blood to the traditionally fusion-oriented institute. With the appointment of Marco de Baar, that rule has now been broken. De Baar is firmly rooted in fusion research, but no one can accuse him of having a narrow focus. His vision of where the institute should head to is crystal clear.

Specialized larger-scale equipment

Scientific director Marco de Baar; picture: Bart van Overbeeke/DIFFER

“Two fields are vitally important in the transition towards sustainable energy,” says De Baar.“They are materials science and system and control. I know that DIFFER can be a key facilitator in both these fields. In materials science, our next step into the future is acquiring some highly specialized larger-scale equipment, and inviting researchers from all Dutch universities to work with us. We already use the same model in fusion research, where we work together with guests on our Magnum-PSI, Upgraded Pilot-PSI, and Ion Beam Facility.”

Besides materials science, the other breakthrough field in energy research is system and control, according to De Baar.“This approach is already strongly developed in our fusion research. I want to unroll it in our solar fuels research too. The plan is to develop effective systems and control engineering methods that are interesting for science and relevant for industrial applications. If we succeed, DIFFER can become an even greater player in energy research at the national level than we already are, of that I am quite certain.”

Dreadful Covid business

It must be quite challenging to lead the institute through major changes while most of the staff work from home. It is, confirms De Baar. “For one thing, I miss the coffee machine and all the natural everyday contacts it brings. Without these, it’s hard to have an antenna for what’s really going on at the institute. And, of course, all our meetings are online now, which is fine, as long as they are about the business at hand. But doing a brainstorm online is quite another matter. It’s hard to stimulate
people, hard to get wild ideas together.”

“Oh well,” sighs De Baar. “Let’s hope there is an end to this dreadful Covid-19 business.”

Despite being the director at DIFFER, De Baar still does his own research and teaches as a professor of control systems technology at Eindhoven University of Technology. “I want to avoid becoming an administrator pur sang,” he says. “I think it’s essential that, as a scientific director, I keep pushing back the limits of science myself. You have to know how your field is developing, what the bottlenecks are, and where breakthroughs can be expected. I’m not saying it’s easy to combine all of this in one life. But it needs to be done.”

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This story was originally published by our Consortium Member NWO-DIFFER (Netherlands).

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