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Curiosity drives nano scientist: Morten became professor at the age of 40

When you already can dress up with a professor’s title at the age of 40, you should think that a tight career plan lies behind it. However, this is not the case for Morten Madsen. Great research results and an academic career are just a by-product of an unquenchable curiosity to understand the world around him.

By Sune Holst, , 4/1/2022

He is internationally recognised for his work and research in the field of organic solar cells. Trained civil engineer with a PhD in Functional Materials and Nanotechnology. He is also co-author of several of the books in Alsion’s bookcase at SDU’s campus in Sønderborg. And he was appointed professor at the age of just 39 years.

This was two years ago, and 41-year-old Morten Madsen’s career is intense, with especially curiosity as the force that drives him. As frontman of the solar cell group at SDU NanoSYD, he and his team managed to take giant strides in the development of organic and hybrid solar cells.

So, Morten Madsen has plenty to boast of. A touch of arrogance would have been understandable when you have achieved what he has, but if the gentle native of Funen carries a professional pride, then he’s hiding it well behind an eternal smile and an always polite — perhaps even humble — appearance. If you describe Morten Madsen with one word, then calm is the first thing that comes to mind. But that would be wrong. Because when you ask about his research, his eyes start to sparkle, revealing an overriding character trait: Curiosity.

- Ever since I was a kid, I've been extremely curious about understanding the world around me.

In childhood and high school on Funen he sought answers to the question in physics and mathematics. Two subjects he also considered studying at the university, but then he chose to become an electrical engineer at SDU in Odense.

Although Morten Madsen was happy and satisfied with his bachelor’s degree, it was only when he began his graduate in physics and technology at SDU that he could really get the drain for his curiosity. Especially optics and quantum mechanics aroused his interest. In quantum mechanics, particles can be in many different states and can overcome energy barriers that are impossible in classical physics.

- It’s hard to understand when you think about it, because we grew up with a conventional physics approach. If we sit in this room, we can't just walk through the wall because we would be hit by it, but if you were a quantum particle, then there would be a certain probability that you could be on the other side of the wall. That is a strange thought. I'm very driven by finding out how the world is connected.

Morten Madsen goes on to say that his curiosity to understand how the world is connected not only focuses on physics, but also extends into philosophy.

- Quantum physics and philosophy have one to several links. Bohr’s and Einstein’s theories are something that has been discussed in philosophy because it influences how we understand our world. That, I think, is incredibly exciting.

PhD on crystals on surfaces — creating order in disorder 

Morten Madsen’s master’s thesis led him to a PhD in Functional Materials and Nanotechnology, where he examined molecules on surfaces.

- In a way, it was very basic research. At least in relation to the breadth of what I'm doing now. But that was also the reason for it. There I got an interest in functional materials and nanotechnology, also because of my PhD supervisor professor Horst-Günter Rubahn. And here, my curiosity grew about how the properties of materials are defined down at molecular levels, and where this could be used.

Man’s curiosity to understand the physical world has led us to countless discoveries and inventions. Our modern society rests on a foundation of basic research. From the alarm clock that goes off in the morning, to the lights that you turn off when you crawl under the duvet at bedtime. Our everyday life is based on scientific curiosity. One could argue that basic research is the purest form of curiosity.

And it was the purest form of basic research, Morten Madsen practised in connection with his PhD. He examined how molecules organise themselves on surfaces, and how to make crystalline nanostructures and other things if you control growth.

Molecules may have different optical and electrical properties, which are also given based on the structures of the organic molecules — semiconductor materials. Their composition in the molecule — and compound structure with other molecules — determines their semiconductive properties; for example, how good they are at absorbing light, and how good they are at leading power.

- Order in disorder became the main topic. The growth of crystalline surfaces is very orderly, but at the end of my PhD I also looked at how to use it for something applied, which requires growth on other types of surfaces. I developed a method to keep order on NOT so orderly surfaces on metallic films. As a result, I could start integrating them into devices.

From basic research to applied research

Morten Madsen’s PhD is a brilliant example of the fact that the boundary between basic and application-oriented research often is fluid. We do not always immediately understand research. Or where discoveries lead. Because, although research into how molecules organise on surfaces has value in itself, we have to do research that can be used for something. It’s more important than ever.

The all-important threat of climate change needs to be addressed by research into new energy sources and technologies. So, Morten Madsen’s research was going out to work. And to work came both he and his research. Professor and Head of the Mads Clausen Institute, Horst-Günter Rubahn, says:

- Morten wrote his PhD under difficult conditions. The group of nano scientists I led moved from Odense to Sønderborg while he was in the process of doing it. The construction of the campus in Sønderborg was one and a half years delayed, which meant that he had to not only do without an office to begin with, but also had to actively help build the first laboratories. I am convinced that the period during which he worked under very difficult conditions and yet managed to produce interesting and impressive results has had a major impact on his research and personal development.

Subsequently, Morten Madsen became part of a highly dynamic research group at Berkeley, just north of San Francisco, California, in connection with his postdoc.

- I think it was my engineering background that set in. Although quantum physics is not very applicable in itself, I just wanted to turn it into something applicable. During my PhD, I somehow created order in disorder and structure in chaos with more applied crystalline thin films. Now I wanted to see what it could do — that’s why I took a postdoc in the United States, where the focus was on devices that were based on a strong understanding of the basic building blocks.

At the American university, called the University of California, Berkeley, everything went very fast. Work was done from morning to night. Every day. And a working week of up to 100 hours was not a rare thing. It was a dynamic group with many researchers in the same group. And even though (and perhaps because) the experience was intensive, the time at Javey Research Lab was good and educational for Morten Madsen.

- My supervisor there, Professor Ali Javey, could well demand a lot of people. Here I learned that if you really want to, then you can achieve a lot of things if everyone moves in the same direction. There was a very short way from idea to getting to something really exciting and good. There were many people who really pushed on to make things happen and succeed. Says frontman for the solar group at SDU NanoSYD.

Frontman for the solar cell group at SDU NanoSYD

Today, Morten Madsen himself leads a dynamic research group. Under his leadership, the solar cell group at NanoSYD has thus managed to help improve the efficiency and durability of organic cells to such an extent that the paper-thin solar cells face their major commercial breakthroughs.

Organic and hybrid solar cells are unique in that, in addition to being paper-thin, they are also flexible and transparent, which is why they can be integrated into windows and facades and thus generate energy, where traditional solar cells cannot, e.g., in windows in cities and in greenhouses, says Morten Madsen.

Moreover, organic and hybrid solar cells are much less energy consuming to produce compared to traditional silicon solar cells, which means that they have an energy payback time of about 1 month, i.e., the time they need to produce the energy used to produce them.

It takes traditional solar cells 1-2 years to go into zero on the energy balance. Therefore, organic solar cells and Morten Madsen’s research are a potential important player in the green transition, which is imperative if we are to overcome the climate crisis that the world is facing. 

Morten Madsen has taken good experience with him from Berkeley, and probably also adjusted his management style according to Danish circumstances.

- Of course it is different in Denmark than it was at Berkeley, and for me, management style is also partly a personal thing. It is important that it also reflects the person you are, or rather, that you take your person into it. It also happens almost automatically in an intensive research environment. Ali Javey was an extremely motivated and motivating manager. He got extremely good ideas and was always very excited when results were achieved. It was instructive to experience at close range. I hope that I have taken some of it to heart in my work with organic solar cells at SDU in Denmark.

The 41-year-old inhabitant of Funen also tells us that he is not the pitchfork manager type who enjoys bashing others.

- For me personally, it’s important that people are motivated and want something. It motivates me to find types who really want this and think it’s exciting. If you can create the right research environment, you can achieve a lot. For me, it is about the motivation to learn something new in relation to, e.g., devices in the field of energy — why don’t they work better, why aren’t they more durable? If there is a new problem; how do we solve it? All these problems in relation to solar cells but also to other energy technologies are of concern to me. How do they work, and how can we address the challenges posed by them? I'm very concerned about that. It’s the solutions that drive me.

And there it was again. The Curious George-like curiosity that drives Morten Madsen. Research is about ideas, curiosity, openness and cross-border cooperation. Knowledge sharing, cooperation and just fundamental curiosity. You could say that Morten Madsen is employed to be curious. Professionally curious.

So, let’s give the final words to Israeli writer and literature professor Amos Oz*:

My driving force is curiosity. […] A curious person is a slightly better person, better parent, better partner, neighbour, colleague than the person who is not curious. I even dare say that a curious person is a better lover than a person who is not curious. […] Let me suggest that curiosity, alongside humour, are two powerful antidotes to fanaticism. I have never seen a curious fanatic; I have never seen a fanatic with a sense of humour. 

Facts — Professor Horst-Günter Rubahn about Morten Madsen

Professor Horst-Günter Rubahn has been an important mentor for Morten Madsen in connection with his academic career. He tells about Morten Madsen:

” Morten Madsen’s career has developed parallel to the development of nano research at SDU in Sønderborg. Nano research has opened good opportunities, and Morten has managed to seize and develop them. It takes enormous courage and self-discipline to do this, but Morten has managed to do so. Fortune favours the bold as the Roman proverb says.”

” When Morten came back from Berkeley, I made him an assistant professor. Again, the circumstances were not optimal, but I am convinced that it has helped shape him as the excellent scientist he is today. We looked at what subject of research could bring him forward in his academic career so that he could later become a professor. At the time — around 2012 — it was not at all obvious that organic solar cells should bring him there since the organic solar cells at that time had limited efficiency and stability. In fact, most people back then did not believe that solar cells would have a significant place in society — and certainly not the unpredictable organic solar cells.”

” At the time, we had no experience with solar cells, but great research expertise within thin films. Morten Madsen built a network around his research and was also supported by Danfoss in the form of unique roll-to-roll facilities. From a management perspective, we were convinced that it was important for us to have a unique research field in Sønderborg, and here it turned out that Morten Madsen was the right one to put it into practice.”

*Transcribed from:
Editing was completed: 01.04.2022