Born in the village of Ardon, Switzerland, a country smaller than Iowa, Daniel Attinger’s future began to take shape without him even realizing it. He took an early interest in his dad’s job as a motorcycle mechanic, and his enthusiasm for understanding the intricate details of mechanical work continued to grow throughout his teens, when he would spend hours tuning the engine of his moped. He recalls a defining moment from those years that guided him to his true passion that he is exploring today: “In high school I distinctly remember my geography teacher explaining a coming energy crisis to our class. That’s when I decided that by becoming a mechanical engineer, I could help the world use energy more efficiently.”
He set this vision in motion when he attended two of the most honorable Swiss engineering schools, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) for his undergraduate studies and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) for his doctoral studies, both in mechanical engineering. At ETHZ, he got involved in his current specialty, microfluidics, and his PhD thesis described the impact, spreading, and freezing of miniscule drops of solder that can be printed on an electronic circuit board.
“My advisor showed me a simulation of the impact of these drops on a solid surface, and I found this deformation to be a very beautiful process, changing from a spherical to doughnut-shape” explains Attinger. “It was the first time I saw something so aesthetically appealing in mechanical engineering, which is why I chose it for my thesis.” The techniques he learned during his thesis research allowed him to pursue further research and gave him the tools to work on future energy efficient projects.
After completing his PhD, Attinger began designing devices to handle very small quantities of medical liquids for a Swiss startup company called Seyonic. It was here that he began to see the practical applications of the manipulation of liquids and learned the techniques needed for microfabrication, which would focus future research he would work on at Columbia University.
In 2002, he moved to the United States where he was an assistant professor for the State University of New York at Stony Brook for three years before becoming assistant professor at Columbia in 2005. He remained there for about six years before recently accepting an offer from Iowa State University to join the ME department as an associate professor, where he plans to take the next step in applying his mechanical engineering expertise to improve energy efficiency.
His current research has been concentrated on understanding, controlling, and enhancing multiphase microfluidic transport phenomena. “My Columbia group and I have, for instance, demonstrated that appropriately micro-functionalized interfaces can enhance pool boiling heat transfer or guide the self-assembly of nanoparticles,” says Attinger.
This discovery led him to explore how to develop a technique to systematically coat surfaces with micro and nanoparticles using self-assembly processes that occur during the drying of thin films or drops. It’s a process he is based on the staining phenomenon that occurs when a drop of coffee dries to a sheet of paper, and it could be used for further applications, such as making cost competitive solar cells. “I am currently assembling a team to implement these micro and nano-structured surfaces into energy systems to make for instance more efficient heat exchangers, or brighter lighting appliances” he says. “If I can contribute to reducing our consumption of fossil fuels for energy, I would be very pleased.”
Although Attinger is most excited for his surface coating research, he is also involved a project related to forensic sciences to assist the criminal justice system. By studying the formation of bloodstains and developing 3D measuring techniques for these stains, his research will help reconstruct crime scenes.
These two research activities will progress nicely given the resources Attinger has access to at Iowa State. “I am fortunate Ames has both a virtual reality center and hosts the Midwest Forensic center because it will be very helpful in my upcoming project,” he explains. Additional resources will come with the graduate student and post-doctorates he plans to hire. Always eager to try new research venues, Attinger sees himself as an experimentalist. “With my lab members, graduate or undergraduate students, we start with basic tasks and keep increasing the challenges and difficulties until we reach the boundaries of current scientific and engineering knowledge,” he says. The last two Ph.D. students who graduated in Attinger’s lab gained faculty positions in research universities immediately following graduation.
Attinger is also enthused to begin his new teaching job. “I have always liked to teach partly because I like to be on stage,” admits Attinger. “When teaching, I try to keep things simple and illustrate my lectures with real life examples.”
He will continue his spirited and ambitious teaching style at Iowa State, hoping to make a difference. He also plans to make it a priority to get know each of his colleagues and form strong relationships with them. Additionally, he wants to boost his involvement in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and American Physical Society by organizing several international conferences, during which time he looks forward to helping his colleagues expose and exchange their ideas.
The coming challenges in new role are a welcome opportunity. “Being a faculty member in engineering is truly a wonderful job since you are free to choose the challenges you want to attack,” says Attinger. “And the challenges of the 21st century, whether it’s pollution, soil erosion, desertification, or energy efficiency, require contributions from mechanical engineers that I am excited to explore.”