While his childhood friends built things, Erik was always more intrigued by how and why things break. Prof. Dr. Erik Bitzek has consistently followed this passion for materials, their structures, and their breaking points. This Ludwigsburg Native never minded if his observations were drawn from stones in his mineral collection, his favorite chocolate, or steel. After studying physics in Stuttgart, Bitzek started his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research (now MPI for Intelligent Systems), turning this vocation into a profession. Now he has received a coveted ERC consolidator scholarship worth two million euros from the European Research Council (ERC) – to explore even more intensively why things break apart. With his latest research project ‘microKIc – Microscopic origins of fracture toughness’ at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), Bitzek aims to describe the interactions between cracks and material defects, and investigate the factors influencing breakage and destruction.
“We do not know enough about the crack tip processes in metals, in intermetallic compounds, or in semiconductors, to make theoretical predictions about the fracture toughness of these materials,” explains Bitzek. However, it is so important to understand these processes precisely. For example – in the construction and transport business, for the construction of components and machines, or the design of reactor pressure vessels – resistance to the spread of cracks is an essential property of the materials used, such as steel.
How do fracture processes – which start on the smallest atomic scale long before we can see a crack with the eye – depend on microstructure, temperature or loading rate? These are questions the FAU scientist will investigate during his project. Starting from simulations with several millions of atoms, he will develop micromechanical models for breaking strength and compare these with fracture tests carried out directly in the scanning electron microscope.
When materials are subjected to a load, cracks are the usual consequence. These do not spread two-dimensionally but always three-dimensionally. Therefore, investigating the early stages of crack formation in 3-D models, and with different simulation methods for the individual length scales, promises particularly realistic results. They are intended to give researchers a comprehensive understanding of the microscopic processes at the crack tip. This helps materials scientists to then develop novel, fail-safe materials and further improve the design guidelines for safety-relevant structures and components.
The fact that Erik Bitzek is doing outstanding work in this field of research is easy to underline by glancing at his previous career. Before taking up a professorship for materials science (simulation and material properties) at the Chair of Materials Science (General Material Properties) in Erlangen, he was contributing substantially to the establishment of the new Institute for Reliability of Systems and Devices at the Karlsruhe University of Technology (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)). After completing his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the KIT, he researched at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Bitzek has been a board member of the research training group “GRK1896 – in situ microscopy with electrons, x-rays and raster probes” and he has been responsible for the Elite Master’s Program ‘Advanced Materials and Processes’ (MAP) since 2013. In addition, he was awarded the EAM Starting Grant in 2013 by the FAU’s Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’ (EAM) in order to launch individual projects and improve his chances for the acquisition of funding within the national and international framework – an investment that has now paid off.
One thing, of course, is diminishing with his increasing success: similarities between the graphical novels fan Erik Bitzek and his favorite cartoon character, Gaston Lagaffe. Unlike the quirky anti-hero of André Franquin’s pen, chaos and destruction are now found mainly in Bitzek’s computer and not in his immediate environment. “But I still find it fascinating when something breaks down in real life,” laughs Bitzek.
Prof. Dr. Erik Bitzek