RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 44 - February 2005
  POLAND  -  Behind the scenes of technological development

Blood-flow imaging and laser-assisted machining, composite alloys and the fatigue modelling of materials, prostheses and nanofibres…. All this and more can be found inside the ten-storey building of the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Laboratory of nanotechnologies
Laboratory of nanotechnologies
In his office at the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research (IPPT) in the heart of Warsaw, Wojciech Secomski rubs cream into his forearm and, with his left hand, takes hold of a kind of metal pen linked to a screen. “It is an ultrasound emitter/receiver for Doppler imaging,” he explains, as he applies the sensor to his right arm. Random signals appear on the screen. Secomski moves the probe and a regular signal is emitted. “A vein,” he says as he continues to move the sensor. Suddenly a rhythmic signal similar to heartbeats appears. “That is an artery.”

After a few seconds of recording, he removes the sensor and launches a calculation on his computer. By the time he has washed the cream from his arm, the result appears on his screen: “That is my haematocrit.(1) This system makes it possible to measure the haematocrit in real time through the skin, without needing to take a blood sample.”

The technique is still being developed but has already attracted the interest of specialists and emergency medical services. They need to know the haematocrit before treating an injured patient and, dispensing with the need to take a blood sample, can save vital minutes in a life-or-death emergency. 

Penetrating the niches
Behind Secomski another researcher is working on applying Doppler imaging to the study of skin tumours. Before cutting them out, surgeons must have a precise idea of the size and shape of the tumour. Surface imaging provides this. In the next room, it is the internal structure of the human bone that is being analysed, again using the diffraction spectrum of the ultrasounds that cross it. The aim here is to make a rapid diagnosis of osteoporosis of the ankle. 

“These examples are typical of the research we are carrying out,” explains Andrzej Nowicki, director of the IPPT’s Department of Ultrasonics. “We are working on niches, on devices suitable for very specialised uses which do not interest the major medical equipment manufacturers.”

The department has a long tradition in acoustical research applied to medical imaging and is, in fact, the birthplace of the Echoson company. Today, this is Poland’s number one firm, exporting most of its echographic equipment to the United States. Although it is now fully autonomous, Echoson still maintains close links with the institute. IPPT’s know-how has been recognised by the European Union which now supports the institute’s Abiomed (Applied Biomedical Modelling and Diagnostics) Centre of Excellence.

Laser and resistance
Two floors up and you enter a totally different domain. The Lapromat (Laser Processing and Material Advanced Testing) Centre of Excellence focuses on cutting, processing, machining and welding materials using laser technology. Lech Dietrich, Director of the Department of Materials Resistance, welcomes the opportunity to present some peculiar specimens: small rigid metal tubes, corrugated or bulbous in shape, or the roof of a miniature pagoda in the shape of a star. All these parts were machined using a 2.5 kW CO2 laser according to processes patented by the IPPT researchers. What can they do?

“We are not yet at the marketing stage, but at the stage of validating a process that could be used for machining parts on request for very specific equipment,” he says. In the medium term, as the price of lasers falls, mass production could be an option. The shipbuilding sector, for example, is seriously considering using this technology for machining the double hulls on ships. 

The next stop is the basement, still in the company of Dietrich and his colleague Grzegorz Socha. A huge machine stands in the centre of a vast room, moving to and fro as it crushes a metal part. The layman would take it for a piston. “It is the ball bearings of a Land Rover which we are testing for resistance by applying complex stress, that is, a mix of pressure and torsion,” explains Dietrich. After two days of this punishment, the part will be analysed to determine the damage inflicted on the material’s structure.

Are there other ways of determining a part’s resistance? “That is what we are trying to find,” replies Socha, who has just published, in the International Journal of Fatigue, a new method for monitoring changes to the structure of a material that can then be extrapolated to calculate its service life without lengthy sessions on the test beds. “For a manufacturer, the stakes are high. If it has the assurance that a part can remain in service for several additional years without jeopardising safety, it can make valuable savings.”

This potential gain is particularly important for industrial devices subject to corrosion, pressure and extreme temperatures, such as the turbines at a power station or pipeline metal. The department is, in fact, a participant, along with the Warsaw University of Technology, in a Centre of Excellence devoted to this very subject, the Safety Critical Pressure System (SCPS).

European excellence
“The first Centre of Excellence set up in our institute was the Advanced Materials and Structure (AMAS) one,” notes Wojciech Nowacki, the IPPT's assistant director. “This first project (2000-2004) was very useful for us, but as half the institute was involved in AMAS, it was felt necessary to continue it in the form of more targeted projects.” 

With around 150 researchers and 100 PhDs, the institute is interested in a very wide range of subjects with the common characteristic of upstream technological development. Since November 2004, the IPPT has also coordinated a European Network of Excellence devoted to the study of new materials (alloys, ceramic/steel composites, intelligent materials). Consisting of 25 universities, seven SMEs and five industrial companies, the KMM (Knowledge-based Multicomponent Materials for Durable and Safe Performance) network has a budget of €20 million, €8.1 of which comes from the EU. “It is the product of two years’ work, which is how long it took to compile a 600-page dossier. But we have no regrets as this initiative allows us to fulfil many European research contracts,” concludes Nowacki.

(1) The haematocrit is the ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood. It gives a good indication of a person’s haemoglobin level. 

  Superb Centres of Excellence  
  Launched by the Commission in 1999, the Centres of Excellence programme aims to help restructure the research system in the 12 EU candidate and accession countries. A Centre of Excellence was defined as an independent research unit within a large institution that is known for the quality of its work. In the framework of the Inco 2 actions, the Union allocated more than   €24 million to establishing a network of 34 Centres of Excellence (including nine in Poland), selected following a call for proposals that received 185 responses. 

At their last meeting, in Prague in May 2004, the 34 Centres of Excellence made a very positive appraisal of the programme, considering it to be “visionary, timely and fruitful”. The financial support and the label made it possible to boost the renown of these laboratories by organising some 600 conferences or seminars, as well as exchange schemes, for the benefit of 3 500 researchers from the West and 1 700 from the Centres of Excellence. After enlargement, the programme lost part of its raison d’être. Nevertheless, the label is still adopted by laboratories that, while not planning to work as part of a network like their predecessors, retain the objective of improving recognition of the quality of research carried out in their country.


  University boom  
  Under the socialist regime, access to higher education in Poland was extremely selective and the country had just 400 000 students. On the other hand, teaching staff had a comfortable wage and university careers were prestigious and coveted. The reforms that followed democratic transition in 1989/1990 changed all that. Due to state budgeting problems, the purchasing power of university lecturers dropped by 50% between 1989 and 1994. That triggered a major internal brain-drain, with staff leaving universities for finance, consultancy or the private universities that saw dramatic growth. At the same time, access to higher education broadened. The Polish university system, which under the socialist system was centred around 11 universities in the major cities, now includes 110 higher education establishments located all over the country, offering places for 1.8 million students. The growth has been even more dramatic for third cycle studies. In 2002, there were 31 000 doctoral students compared with just 1 600 in 1991. Grants based on social criteria have been progressively replaced by merit-based grants. But students are not very attracted by a university career that remains poorly paid. However, this does have its positive side. “Women, the winners among the losers, have as a result come to outnumber men at universities, a phenomenon one sees whenever a profession loses prestige,” explains the sociologist Renata Siemienska of Warsaw University.