Alumni-Spotlight - Alexandre Gatto, Fraunhofer IOF

The development of so called »Smart Functional Glass« at Carl Zeiss in Jena is 's focus. He started as an laser-expert at the Fraunhofer IOF.

»We're about even!« – Fraunhofer IOF alumnus Dr. Alexandre Gatto

The IOF alumnus Alexandre Gatto (left) hast more in common with the Nobel Laureate in Physics 2018, Gérard Mourou, than the discipline. Both got to know and appreciate each other at the Photonics Days in Jena 2019 for the first time.
© Privat
The IOF alumnus Alexandre Gatto (left) hast more in common with the Nobel Laureate in Physics 2018, Gérard Mourou, than the discipline. Both got to know and appreciate each other at the Photonics Days in Jena 2019 for the first time.

If in the next couple of years car windows or windows in trams display personalized information, respond to our gestures, or provide temperature readings, this could be one of the projects currently being worked on by Alexandre Gatto, Director of Microstructured Optics at Carl Zeiss in Jena, and his team. Gatto predicts the coming years will see the arrival of the first applications for smart glass, a technology that his team has devoted its energies to advancing over the last few years. The fact that Nobel Prize judges have so far overlooked Gatto's team for their awards is no reflection on the quality of their work, more of which later. From Marseille, Gatto moved to the Fraunhofer Institute for Optics and Precision Engineering IOF to take up a postdoctoral position, and, with a few brief in between stints elsewhere, the physicist has stayed loyal to the Jena location, the field of optics and also the IOF.


You have been working at Fraunhofer for more than five years. How did you end up at the IOF?

It was simple! After obtaining my PhD from the Institut Fresnel at Aix-Marseille University, I was looking for a position. Back then, there was an exchange program called Training and Mobility Research, which the Fraunhofer IOF also ran. The IOF already had a big reputation in my specialist field in those days, and there was an 18-month position available that matched my interests in a number of areas. I defended my doctoral thesis in Marseille, and then got straight on the plane to take a look at the IOF in Jena. Back then, the Institute wasn't as large as it is today, but, after extending my contract, I ended up staying there for 6 years.


What were your specialist areas?

One of the research aims for this EU-funded Training Mobility Research project was optical mirror systems for free-electron lasers, which have to be extremely robust. I did my doctorate on optical layers and joined the IOF's Coatings department headed by Prof. Norbert Kaiser. In the department we worked on special coatings for the UV/VUV segment. This involves using a synchrotron light source, which requires very large facilities, such as those located in Trieste or Berlin. The light from this source is enhanced in a mirror system. Due to the intense synchrotron light, extremely resistant coatings are required. We achieved good results in designing layer systems. But in addition to optical properties, the material matters. Following this project, I managed various industrial projects, also with different departments of the IOF, lastly as group manager for VUV Optical Coatings. For example, in the UV/VUV spectral range, I developed various processes as well as design coatings for the optical industry.


What is special about Fraunhofer?

It's Fraunhofer´s positioning, right at the half-way point between basic research and research for industry. And of course the working atmosphere is very good and extremely productive. For me, the Fraunhofer model is still the best link bridging research and application. The Fraunhofer model also offers many advantages to scientists who are graduating and want to go to the industry. For me personally, my time at Fraunhofer was the best possible preparation for then going on to the Zeiss Group in 2005.


Which skills from Fraunhofer do you still use today at the Zeiss Group?

I prepared for my current job by studying for a Master of Business Administration. A number of employees were given the chance to do this MBA program alongside their job. The program at Bradford University School of Management was very extensive, and things I learned still help me today in my role as a manager. At the same time, I actually also acquired quite a few projects for Fraunhofer – so we're probably about even. Siriously - I am very thankful for this opportunity, and I still regularly work with Fraunhofer on projects.


What made you opt to come to Germany?

In Germany, there's also the Max Planck Society, but there are hardly any comparable examples from other countries that you could name. Although there are research institutions with a similar focus for example in France or other European countries, they are nowhere near as successful – there is still nothing to really match it. On the other hand, we should ceep in mind, that also the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft wasn't set up overnight.

How did you benefit from Fraunhofer?

As I already said, I learned a lot at the IOF. I acquired a lot of skills in the more than five years I spent as a project manager and group manager. They were my first management positions and my first professional experiences. In addition, I was able to gain experience abroad as well. That was really very exciting. More than anything, I was able to develop in a context that gave me a relatively secure basis from a financial perspective. So moving into professional life wasn't quite as big a jump as it might have been if I had gone straight into industry.


What are you mostly focused on today at ZEISS?

Of course, I'm still using many elements of what I experienced at the IOF, and I really did experience a lot there. In terms of methodology, it was excellent full-stock training, as I like to call it. But working in a corporation brings other challenges, and a large company functions differently to a Fraunhofer Institute. Of course, I'm required to understand the technological context of optical microstructures, but my current position is more about management responsibilities that I perform.


That brings us to our next question: What is your take on the next major trends?

In the commning years, we are going to see an increase in applications based on microstructured materials. What we have done up til now using lenses and mirrors can also be achieved by altering a surface or the underlying structure – such as projection or detection structures. At ZEISS we use the term 'smart multi-functional glass' here. This means that lenses or even cameras that are invisible by the eye can be 'built in' to a pane of glass, enabling gesture recognition or even eye tracking. Glass surfaces with these smart microstructures could be used in smart homes or commercial buildings, or for monitoring and measurement tasks. These microstructures could detect unauthorized intruders, display information, and filter sunlight at the same time, to name just a few possible applications. This is a unique technology that we are driving forward here at ZEISS in Jena.


When will we be able to buy these products?

We're still right in the middle of the development process. Of course, we are working on wide range of products with versatile applications. We're making the first prototypes with these kinds of functionalities, but we still have some major complexities to sort out. For certain projects, we can expect the first products to come out in two to three years' time. More complex projects are likely to last about five to six years before they come onto the market. And of course the projects are all confidential; so, unfortunately, I can't say too much about them yet. But we're talking about some really exciting projects with various different partners.


At the Photonics Days, which the IOF jointly organized, you met Nobel Prize winner Gérard Mourou, another famous son from your birthplace, Albertville!

It was a great evening. During the Photonics Days dinner, we talked with the President and CEO of the Carl Zeiss Group, Prof. Michael Kaschke, and with Prof. Gérard Mourou, the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and also talked about certain projects at Carl Zeiss. Like me, Mr Mourou was born in Albertville. And so I had to roll out my joke. I told him that he had ruined my own chance of winning a Nobel Prize. Prof. Mourou was a bit taken aback. And then I explained to him that the probability of two Nobel Prizes for Physics being awarded to people from the same town were practically zero. Then we talked about Albertville and life there. We had a very lively chat. You could quickly tell that Mr. Mourou hails from the Alps, we share the same sense of humor.


Mr Gatto, thank you for this intresting conversation.