New materials in 3D

Portrait of Rafaela Debastiani

What do Roman murals and coconuts have in common? Rafaela Debastiani is interested in both. And here's the reason why: the Brazilian physicist has been working with elemental, molecular and imaging characterisation techniques over the years and currently works with high resolution X-ray tomography – a method that allows her to examine the inner structure of all kinds of different materials. In the case of murals, this led to her PhD in Freiburg; more about the coconuts later. Since October 2019, Debastiani has been conducting postdoctoral research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), working at a cluster of excellence devoted to innovative developments in 3D printing: “3D Matter Made to Order”. She is the responsible scientist for the nanoCT technology within Karlsruhe Nano Micro Facility (KNMFi). A research collaboration between KIT and Heidelberg University, the cluster is driving forward the development of three-dimensional production technologies. "Our group is primarily focusing on 3D mechanical metamaterials", explains Rafaela Debastiani. "These are materials that are rationally designed to offer properties that go beyond those found in natural materials."

Finding solutions for practical applications

In some cases new materials are inspired by nature, which is where the coconuts come into play. The Brazilian scientist is just beginning an experiment to study coconut shells. "We want to find out which structures are responsible for mechanical properties such as the strength and toughness of the shells", explains the 35-year-old. "And in the context of the mechanical metamaterials, our nano-CT device with integrated equipment to perform in situ mechanical testing provides us with high resolution images that can help reveal the role of the internal structures in the mechanical properties of the samples." This knowledge can be used to develop new technical solutions and materials that could be of interest to the automotive industry, for example.

The researchers at the cluster work closely together across their disciplinary boundaries. "During workshops or discussions we share our specialist knowledge and findings with one another", reports Debastiani. "That way, we all learn from each other." Her research projects to date have always been interdisciplinary in nature; recently she analysed the elemental composition of foodstuff. "I am simply a person who is full of curiosity and always loves to learn new things", says the physicist. "In October 2019 I still knew nothing about metamaterials or coconuts! And these days I can’t go into a museum without wondering which pigments were used in every painting." While Debastiani mainly collaborated during her PhD with physicists and archaeologists, at KIT she is working with material scientists and engineers. "In my view, this intensive exchange between us is one of the key factors for scientific success", stresses the Brazilian.

Never imagined: from Brazil to Europe

She has now spent nearly nine years in Germany during the course of her academic career. "When I was still at school I would never have imagined that I would one day work so far away, in Europe", recalls Debastiani. She says that moving from the small town of Passo Fundo in the south of Brazil, which is where she grew up, to the university city of Porto Alegre around 280 kilometres away, was a huge step for her. She took her master's degree in Brazil but then did her doctorate at the Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Freiburg. She then returned initially to work as a postdoc in Porto Alegre before finally ending up in Karlsruhe. She is convinced that she is now in the right place: "The conditions for research in Germany are simply outstanding", she enthuses. The young researcher particularly values the close cooperation between scientific institutions, as well as the lively sharing of knowledge within Europe. "Having ideas is not enough", she notes. "You also need the resources to put them into practice."