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Researcher by chance

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Researcher by chance

Anne Ladegaard Skov, Associate Professor at DTU Chemical Engineering, has made a name for herself at a relatively young age as one of the world’s leading researchers into dielectric elastomers. However, it was far from certain that she would even graduate from high school.

Spread out in front of Anne Ladegaard Skov are numerous small pieces of film that look remarkably like Vita Wrap. The slim film, and the metal sprayed thinly over it, contain her entire professional life, but the unremarkable surface is deceptive: the dielectric elastomers—as they are called—hold a dizzying wealth of opportunities and huge financial potential. Only a few hundred people worldwide are researching these elastomers, and Anne Ladegaard Skov is one of the best.

It was far from given that she would end up as associate professor in chemical engineering and an elite global researcher—quite the reverse, in fact.

“I don’t come from a family of academics; my father’s a ship’s officer and my mother’s a designer, and I didn’t have much idea of what an engineer actually does until I started at DTU. In fact, I’m still not quite sure why I decided to take an engineering degree in the first place. All through high school I wanted to be a doctor, because you sort of know what a doctor does,” she explains, while fiddling with the pieces of polymer film on the table in front of her.

However, something happened during her high school years in her home town of Fredericia on Jutland: one of her teachers and one event made all the difference, charting a course for Anne Ladegaard Skov’s life that she has followed more-or-less religiously ever since.

“I was good at physics and chemistry in high school. So good, in fact, that I took part in the ‘Chemolympics’, where students compete in chemistry, and something or other must have happened there,” she says.

The impetus for it all came from her chemistry teacher, Ove Kjær Poulsen, who managed to make his subject so interesting that Anne was hooked.

“He taught chemistry as something that was really cool … and comprehensible! You felt comfortable with the subject,” she explains, before adding:

“And he was really good at getting things to explode. We set fire to all kinds of things in his classes.”

Anne Ladegaard Skov gives much of the credit for her successful career to her old chemistry teacher. Photo: Joachim Rode.

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Before she knew where she was, Anne Ladegaard Skov had been accepted at DTU, where she continued along her inquisitive and slightly uncertain path for quite a while.

We treat each other with respect

“While following the programme, I often found myself wondering why on earth I had to take so many different courses. It was actually by chance that I ended up working on a PhD project to do with polymers. It was one of the other students who said I should come along, even though I barely knew what a polymer was. And when I finally finished my PhD, I promised myself I’d never touch that shit again as long as I lived. But here I am, back again … Mainly because if we can crack this puzzle, the opportunities are immense. So it’s actually hugely exciting,” she says.

Today, she does not consider it a weakness that her path was not arrow-straight and brightly lit from the start; quite the opposite, in fact.

“The people I know who’ve been dedicated to one area from the very beginning naturally had a head start because I spent large parts of my education doing all kinds of other things—but I now know so much about so much. And I use pretty much all of it in one way or another today.”

There is much to suggest that Anne Ladegaard Skov came away from her chemistry lessons back home in Fredericia with much more than ‘just’ a passion for the subject. In any case, she was crowned 2016 PhD Supervisor of the Year at DTU, due to—in her own words—a specific recipe that resonates of her teacher Ove’s chemistry lessons:

“We have fun, and we treat each other with respect. There are plenty of examples of people smacking each other down in these environments, but that’s something I simply won’t tolerate. When we’re busy, we give it all we’ve got—but otherwise the students are welcome to pursue their own ideas; I’m not big on micromanaging …”

Can be used for everything

‘Micro’ is otherwise a key concept when working with materials that are only a few micrometres thick. One of the properties of the dielectric elastomers is that they can convert kinetic energy into electric energy—and vice versa. This is a property that, in Anne Ladegaard Skov’s words, “can be used for almost everything”.

In fact, the list of areas of use is already so long that with a little poetic licence, it can be said that from her office in Building 227 at DTU, Anne leads an almost godlike life, helping the lame walk (exoskeletons), making the blind see (blink mechanisms surgically implanted in the eye), and even adding the crowning glory of creating life to her CV. This last refers to the fact that the American military have used dielectric elastomers to create small, artificial, controllable insects—an invention that can bring a flush to the cheeks of any true afficionado of espionage.

However, the big project right now is on a different, much larger scale. A Dutch company has taken great strides in the development of what are known as polymer ‘anacondas’ with the capacity to exploit wave energy and that therefore have the potential to assure access to serious volumes of renewable energy.

The company will soon be running a test involving ten of these ‘polymer sausages’, each measuring 500 metres in length. Even in a conservative set-up, they are expected to produce energy equivalent to around a tenth of that generated by the entire Averdøreværket plant in Denmark.

It bloody well has to work!

“Right now, we’re focusing heavily on the ‘wave harvesters’. It’s a hugely exciting area, and we know that some of these huge applications simply have to succeed soon. There is immense international enthusiasm at the moment, but if we don’t deliver, it won’t be long before interest starts to decline. Success will of course have a major financial impact, in that I’ll have no problem finding financing for my work, but the biggest motivation is that of professional pride. It bloody well has to work!” emphasizes Anne Ladegaard Skov.
And when the wave harvesters seriously prove their worth, she already knows who will be entitled to a large portion of the credit: an elderly high school teacher in Fredericia.

“In recent years I’ve been thinking more and more that I’d like to pay him a visit simply to thank him for triggering my interest. I think he’s earned that,” she says, with a broad smile.
Because even though no-one could have predicted that she would end up where she is now, one thing is for certain: she’s ended up in the right place.

As to the question of whether she intends to carry on working with polymers for the rest of her career, she answers almost before the question is asked:


source: Technical University of Denmark

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