Saving the Materials of Music


Presenting your materials science research results to a group of Italian organ builders may seem like a bizarre assignment. But in research work that's truly interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary), out-of-the-ordinary assignments like this can be, well, ordinary... And that is precisely what Swedish chemist and materials science researcher Annika Niklasson recently did, with a little interpreting help from some of her Italian collaborators.

The COLLAPSE Team helps save Europe's Baroque pipe organs

Niklasson, who is currently doing her Ph.D. at the Department of Environmental Inorganic Chemistry at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, is working on the E.U.-funded "Corrosion of Lead and Lead-Tin Alloys of (historical) Organ Pipes in Europe" project, which has the very appropriate acronym COLLAPSE.

COLLAPSE is collaborative effort between five main partners in Sweden, Italy, Denmark, and Germany. The expertise of team members ranges from organ building to inorganic chemistry and metallurgy. You're forgiven if you previously thought that materials science was just about creating the most modern of stuff.

COLLAPSE was conceived when Carl-Johan Bergsten of the Göteborg Organ Art Center ( GOArt), based at Göteborg University in Sweden, was invited to Lübeck in northern Germany to discuss the dramatic corrosion of the pipes of the famous local Stellwagen Baroque organ. The instrument contains pipes that are more than 500 years old, but corrosion, strangely, appeared to have commenced only over the last few decades. It seemed imperative to thoroughly investigate "why these old pipes suddenly started to corrode," as Bergsten explained in a recent interview with Science's Next Wave.

The COLLAPSE group was established in 2002 with the Göteborg Organ Art Center acting as the coordinator of the project. Bergsten personifies the intersection of music and science, having worked as an engineer at Volvo and in Göteborg University's engineering department and--not incidentally--being an organist himself.

It soon became clear that a concerted and multidisciplinary effort was needed to investigate the cause of the corrosion. The scientific questions to be addressed by COLLAPSE include the detailed analysis of organ-pipe metals and corrosion products and the effects of environmental factors such as organic acid vapours, temperature and humidity. Also high on the agenda is the development of conservation strategies. Chalmers University of Technology and the Institute of Metallurgy at the University of Bologna in Italy are the main players in the materials side of the work.

Fundamental Materials Science and Environmental Chemistry

At Chalmers, Niklasson and her Ph.D. supervisor Jan-Erik Svensson, both trained in inorganic chemistry, are investigating how lead and lead alloys are corroded; their work is in fundamental materials science and environmental chemistry. Svensson also works at the Chalmers' Competence Center for High-Temperature Corrosion and in partnership with both companies in the automobile sector--Volvo, SAAB, Daimler Chrysler--and major players in the Swedish steel industry.

Despite its intrinsic interest, pipe-organ preservation is a small field; is there any danger that the researchers involved, especially the young ones, are limiting their career opportunities? Svensson acknowledges that COLLAPSE is a unique project, but he is not concerned that their research is an anachronistic exercise. "We are using state-of-the-art methods, such as scanning electron microscopy and x-ray diffraction, to analyse the pipe corrosion, and that's experience you can really sell to industry," he says. Catherine Oertel, another collaborator and a postdoc at the Cornell Center for Materials Research at New York's Cornell University who is currently spending 2 months at Chalmers, agrees: "The methods we use can be applied to many different scenarios; there is plenty of interest in the prevention of corrosion of modern alloys, for example, in the computer industry." Niklasson believes that there will "always be a drive to get less-corrosive materials."

Nevertheless, Oertel is leaning toward a career in science education. She is funded by a U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) programme called Discovery Corps. This programme, currently at the pilot stage, allows scientists to conduct innovative research while also engaging in professional service that can benefit society. As part of her Discovery Corps project, Oertel will communicate the results of her research on organ-pipe corrosion in outreach activities to the public at venues such as the new ScienceCenter in Ithaca, New York. In the future, she would like to get professionally involved in science education by teaching at an undergraduate school.

Annika Niklasson in the lab - The corrosion exposure chambers (eight), each containing one sample, can be seen in the background.

Meeting New Challenges Requires New Skills

All the COLLASPE investigators share a passion for the project; yet the project presents some unique challenges. Meeting these challenges means acquiring new skills that are likely to be useful in future careers. Apart from requiring communication skills par excellence, Oertel remarks that "everyone comes in with different expectations." She observed that the time scale of scientific progress was sometimes hard to convey, with the organ-building partners "expecting results sooner." The nontechnical experiences Niklasson has gained in the project--communicating to a diverse group of professionals, applying for funding, and writing progress reports--have given her "an interest in working in project management in the future."

The spinoff effects of such heritage projects can be surprising. Past research at GOArt, involving the investigation of organ wind supply and the valve system used in the pipes, answered an engineering quandary on the optimal design of low-pressure valves. The result: real solutions for domestic central heating systems.

Like many others, the scientists involved in COLLAPSE have work to do to convince others that projects like theirs, despite their apparent specialisation, can have broad benefits for society, as well as for scientific training. But the scientists themselves--materials science researchers who have a passion both for science and the arts--don't need to be convinced. For them, a project like COLLAPSE is a fantastic opportunity. Svensson admits that of all the collaborations he is involved in, "this is the most fun; it is extremely rewarding."

Presenting research results to a group of Italian organ builders may be an unusual assignment for a scientist, but Niklasson is happy to take it on. One of the great joys of this work, for her, is the fact that "the [nonscientific] collaborators are really interested in our results. Normally people [outside the lab] don't really know why you are doing your research, and with our work, they do."

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