20 Minutes With Martin Dienwiebel

Rachel Fowler, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief | TLT 20 Minutes September 2022

This professor of applied nanotribology at Karlsruhe Institute for Technology discusses working on different segments throughout his career, including structural superlubricity, automotive, additives and nanotribology.

Martin Dienwiebel - The Quick File
STLE member Dr. Martin Dienwiebel is a professor of applied nanotribology at the Institute for Applied Materials at Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT).

Dienwiebel studied physics at the University Dortmund and the Rheinischen Friedrich-Wilhelms University Bonn. He conducted his diploma research at the Forschungszentrum Jülich using low-temperature scanning tunneling microscopy. He performed his doctoral research with Joost Frenken at the Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Tokyo, Japan. Dienwiebel obtained his doctorate in 2003 at Leiden University on the topic of “Superlubricity of Graphite.”

Afterward he worked in the tribology department of IAVF Antriebstechnik AG. In 2008 he received an Emmy-Noether grant of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and set up a junior research group at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology and the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM. In 2011 he obtained his habilitation from KIT, and in 2016 he became a professor of applied nanotribology.

Since 2017 Dienwiebel has been a visiting professor at Kumamoto University in Japan. He’s also a member of the Advanced Structural Materials Group of the International Research Organization for Advanced Science & Technology (IROAST). He’s been a coauthor on more than 60 publications.

Martin Dienwiebel

TLT: How long have you worked in a lubrication-related field, and how did you decide to pursue a career in the lubricants industry?
Being a surface physicist by training, I entered the field of tribology with the start of my doctoral research, which was about 20 years ago. I was looking for an interesting topic related to the physics of surfaces and interfaces, and studying the origins of atomic-scale friction sounded challenging. But honestly, at the very beginning I was more impressed by a talk given by my supervisor than by the science and the challenges in tribology—this changed profoundly the more I learned about it. During my doctoral research I worked on experiments to confirm the phenomenon called structural superlubricity. Immediately after my doctoral studies I changed directions quite drastically and started working in the automotive industry and focused on the tribology of combustion engines and the wear in lubricated tribological systems. At that time, I naturally came into contact and started collaborating with the lubrication and additive industry. Since then, I am trying to have an eye on all aspects in a tribological system, that is the materials (base materials and coatings) and their transformation under the influence of shear and wear (the formation of tribomaterials and third bodies) as well as the interaction of lubricant additives with the sliding materials. All these mechanisms have in common that they happen on the nanoscale at the surface or near the surface, and that is the main theme of my work since the beginning of my career.

TLT: What has been your most rewarding accomplishment throughout your career in the lubricants industry?
It is difficult to name the most rewarding accomplishment. Receiving a doctorate degree, getting the first large grant for setting up my own research group or obtaining a prestigious Heisenberg professorship from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft are very important stepping stones at the time I was working toward these goals. Naturally these achievements are very rewarding, but there are accomplishments that appear to be smaller but also have been very rewarding—for example, solving a difficult tribological problem for an industrial collaborator, getting a difficult work published or the defense of the first doctoral student supervised—these moments have been very rewarding, but you won’t find them in my resume. Which was the most rewarding, I really can’t tell. 

Outside of my professional career, my most rewarding moments come from the time spent with my family and from the moments in the air, being an enthusiast aviator and private pilot.

Martin Dienwiebel working in the lab. Photo courtesy of Amadeus Bramsiepe, KIT.

TLT: What is the No. 1 piece of advice you would give to a person who might be interested in starting a career in the lubricants industry?
I don’t know if there is special advice for a career in the lubricants industry. Tribology is a very interdisciplinary field that needs complementary expertise from chemists, physicists, mechanical engineers and, nowadays, even computer and data scientists. None of us can be a master in all the fields, so one has to be open, bring in new knowledge from your own training and embrace the expertise from experts in adjacent fields.

TLT: What are some of the most technical lubrication-based concepts or topics you have encountered throughout your career?
In my group, we are working sometimes on simple tribological model systems but also on complex mechanical systems that are lubricated with technical lubricants. In both cases, we are aiming to understand fundamental mechanisms on the nanoscale that are behind the main functionality, e.g., low friction or good wear protection. For this, we are often using dedicated homebuilt experimental setups and analyze the wear tracks using surface analytical methods. For example, in the last few years we have investigated the adsorption of a technical friction modifier additive using the autofluorescence of the additive in a scanning confocal microscope and were able to gain, together with our industrial partner, very interesting insights into the friction reduction mechanism and the synergy with other additives. In solid lubrication, we observed the formation of turbostratic graphite in a highly loaded tribological contact, i.e., a ball bearing. In the latter example, we were able to propose a new lubrication model by combining our experimental results with molecular dynamics simulations performed in the group of professor Michael Moseler in Freiburg, Germany. In these projects, we try to perform experiments as close to the simulations as possible in order to be able to compare them. Another very interesting new area is the tribology of CO2-neutral lubricants and fuels.

TLT: Throughout the different segments within your career, which one has been the most interesting, challenging and/or rewarding?
During different phases of my career, there have been different hurdles that have been challenging. Regarding the research on superlubricity, it is maybe noteworthy that the term was somewhat disputed in the beginning, or even now. Scientists didn’t like the name because in their view, it implied a quantum mechanical mechanism, and lubrication engineers in industry didn’t believe that superlubricity could be possible at all. Therefore, publishing the first paper was not easy. Looking back, I find it very rewarding that many scientists and companies have been able to realize superlubricity in various tribological conditions and that it has become a very important field in our community. This, of course, is the achievement of the nanotribology community as a whole.

When I moved to the automotive industry, being a physicist, I initially again had issues to get accepted when working on my first projects. I didn’t know some of the engineering terminology, and that made it difficult to convey my ideas. Nowadays I find it very rewarding that one can get insights into both the fundamental research in nanotribology as well as industrial research in the lubrication industry. This is the reason why I coined my Heisenberg professorship “Applied Nanotribology.”

You can reach Martin Dienwiebel at martin.dienwiebel@kit.edu.