Materials science in Luxembourg Jens Kreisel, Ludger Wirtz and Marc Schiltz With its strategic location and firm commitment to investing in research, Luxembourg has ambitious plans to become a significant player in the international research arena.


ith just over half a million inhabitants, Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Located at the border with France, Germany and Belgium, the country hosts, as one of the six founding members of the European Union, a number of international organizations such as the European Court of Justice, several European Parliament Offices and the European Investment Bank. Coupled with the recent rise of the financial services industry, which now accounts for about two thirds of its economic output, Luxembourg has developed a distinct international flair. What is perhaps underappreciated, however, is that the country’s historical wealth is intimately related to materials science and technology, in the form of the steel industry. Indeed, in spite of its small geographical size it was, in the early twentieth century, the sixth-largest producer of cast iron and the eighth-largest producer of steel in the world. In its heyday, a period between 1945–1975 known as the Trente Glorieuses, the steel industry was the principal employer and source of income for the country, and accounted for some 30% of the gross domestic product (GDP). The world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, still has its headquarters there today. For decades, research and development (R&D) activities in Luxembourg have almost exclusively taken place in the private sector, with a number of major multinationals running significant research and innovation centres in the country. In sharp contrast, publicly funded research activities were far more modest, and only started in the late 1980s when a number of state-funded public research centres known as Centres de Recherche Publics (CRPs) were created. In the past decade, however, public investment in Luxembourgish research has grown significantly, with increased resources being allocated to CRPs and the country setting up the University of Luxembourg in 2003. Table 1 lists the main actors of today’s Luxembourgish public research1.

Successive governments have recognized that a strong and sustained investment into research activities is vital for the future economic diversification and societal development of the country. Between 2000 and 2012, public expenditure on R&D has increased tenfold (Fig. 1) and has now reached 0.6% of GDP. This is comparable, although below, the relative expenditure of Switzerland and Singapore, two countries that share a number of similarities with Luxembourg. The government has set a target for research and development intensity (combined public and private expenditure on R&D) to grow from its current 1.4% to 2.3–2.6% of GDP, to be reached by 2020 (current figures for the US, Germany, Switzerland and Singapore are 2.8%, 2.8%, 3.0% and 2.1%, respectively). In 2007, the country’s National Research Fund (Fonds National de la Recherche, FNR)2 conducted a foresight study to determine its research priorities. Five core domains were identified in a range of areas spanning information security, sustainable resource management as well

as biomedical and health sciences3. Partly as a result of Luxembourg’s established knowhow and huge potential in the field, materials science was identified as one of these key thematic domains, under the heading ‘new functional and intelligent materials’. In this Commentary, we outline the strategy that is being implemented in order for Luxembourg to fulfil its potential in the field, and make the most of the opportunities that it provides.

Setting the scene

Given its strong commitment to research, not to mention its geographical location, openness and high living standards, Luxembourg is well placed to attract highly talented researchers from all over the world. An important challenge the FNR is faced with, therefore, is how to capitalize on this. An essential aspect of the fund’s mandate is to fulfil the traditional role of any national research funding agency, which is to evaluate research projects through a process of rigorous peer review. However, the FNR is also pursuing

Table 1 | Public research in Luxembourg. Public research institution



University of Luxembourg

Science, technology and communication Law, economics and finance Language, literature, humanities, arts and education


CRP Gabriel Lippmann*†

Materials science and analysis Environment and agro-biotechnology Informatics, systems and collaboration Advanced materials and structures Resource centre for environmental technologies Resource centre for health care technologies Service science and innovation Cardiovascular research Immunology Oncology Public health Infection and immunity Population and employment Geography and development Enterprises and industrial organization


CRP Henri Tudor*‡

CRP-Santé (Public Research Centre for Health)

CEPS/INSTEAD (Public Research Centre for Social and Economic Research)




*The CRPs Gabriel Lippmann and Henri Tudor will merge in January 2015 to form the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST). † Named after the Luxembourg-born Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 1908. ‡Named after a Luxembourgish engineer, inventor and industrialist, who developed the first practical lead-acid battery in 1886.


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commentary 350 300

0.8 Euros


GDP 0.6 0.5


0.4 150




50 0

GDP (%)

Euros (millions)



2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 Year


Figure 1 | Luxembourg public investment in public and private R&D.

a strategy of quickly building up the scientific quality and excellence of research carried out in Luxembourg, and as part of these efforts it is running a number of strategic programmes that will help build an efficient and sustainable public-sector research system in the country. Two such programmes, PEARL and ATTRACT, are specifically designed to attract highly qualified researchers from abroad, at the senior and junior levels respectively, by providing competitive start-up packages comparable to the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced and Starting grants on the European level. Furthermore, the FNR also actively encourages international research collaborations that will serve to integrate Luxembourg within the international research network. As part of this policy, the fund has signed a number of cooperation agreements with many of the major research funding agencies in Europe and the US, including the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (France), Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Germany), Schweizerischer Nationalfonds (Switzerland), Research Councils UK (UK) and National Science Foundation (US). In any event, 80% of the scientists based in Luxembourg are non-natives, which naturally fosters international collaboration. The next significant development in Luxembourg’s research landscape will be the completion of a research campus covering the 120 hectares that once housed Luxembourg’s largest steel foundry. Known as Belval City of Science (Fig. 2), this development is one of the largest urban renewal projects currently being undertaken in Europe and, as 220

an investment of almost €1 billion, it underlines the evolution of Luxembourg from an industrial to a financial centre, and on to a major player also in science and technology. Belval City of Science will house a new campus for the University of Luxembourg, as well as the main public research centres of the country. Eventually, around 7,000 students and 3,500 research and teaching staff will be at work on the campus4.

Given its strong commitment to research, not to mention its geographical location, openness and high living standards, Luxembourg is well placed to attract highly talented researchers from all over the world. Materials research in Luxembourg

Following its decline since 1975, the steel industry laid the basis for the development of other materials and processing technologies. By continuing to innovate and investing heavily in materials research, the local industrial base diversified significantly into concrete, glass, ceramics, polymer materials and, increasingly, highperformance materials such as high-tech composites and nanomaterials5. Companies of the calibre of CERATIZIT, Delphi, DuPont, Goodyear, IEE and Paul Wurth all have extensive R&D operations in Luxembourg, in areas ranging from the automotive supplier industry, through to aerospace, electronics and high-tech

construction. Perhaps the most notable example is provided by the European Goodyear Innovation Centre, the European R&D headquarters for Goodyear, which is based in Luxembourg and employs 900 engineers, scientists and technicians from 29 different countries. At present, materials science and technology accounts for the largest share of research, development and innovation projects financed by the Ministry of the Economy and Foreign Trade. Luxembourgish public research can trace its origins to 1985, with the establishment of the CRPs described in Table 1. These are research and technology organizations (RTOs) set up with the aim of combining socio-economic purpose and scientific excellence along the innovation chain. They therefore host scientists conducting mission-driven fundamental research, applied scientific research and technological development, as well as technology transfer. Materials science was a natural area to focus on, and both the CRP Gabriel Lippmann and the CRP Henri Tudor now have a strong emphasis on the field. In January 2015 the two CRPs will be merged into a single RTO, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST). This will significantly strengthen and focus the activities into a single Department of Materials Science, bringing together some 150 researchers. LIST’s ambition is to become a key partner in the socio-economic development of Luxembourg, by establishing itself as an acknowledged hub for research-based innovation in the greater region and by attracting and retaining international R&D activities. Both national and international needs will be addressed to achieve this vision. On a national level, there will be a strong push to consolidate existing assets and knowhow in established areas such as surface science and composite materials. More specifically, design and durability of composites, the adhesion and use of smart interfaces, as well as materials modelling, are all important contenders for developing existing knowledge further. In the wider international context, Luxembourg will establish itself as an innovation hub by attracting and developing new emerging industrial activities. The materials department of LIST will target the fields of advanced nanomaterials and nanotechnology, identified as ‘key enabling technologies’ in Horizon 2020, the EU Research and Innovation programme. Areas of special focus include materials and technologies for the next generation of consumer


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commentary electronics, such as transparent electronics (where the development of transparent p–n junctions remains the main bottleneck for developing truly invisible active devices such as indiscernible computing, sensors and memory technologies), embracing oxide-based electronics. In the latter field, efforts are also concentrated on applying multiferroic oxides in emerging fields such as photoferroelectrics, electrocaloric materials, domain wall electronics, or new avenues in lead-free piezoelectrics. Finally, nanomaterials research and technology also provide the basis for interdisciplinary activities in nano-enabled diagnostics and medicine or in bio-based nanocompounds. Importantly, all such activities in the field of nanomaterials and nanotechnology will be accompanied by safety assessments, using concepts from nanotoxicology and bearing in mind the impact on humans and natural ecosystems. Naturally, successful materials and technology-intensive activities rely heavily on first-class facilities and infrastructure. Over the years the CRPs have built up an impressive array of facilities, which include advanced characterization tools (such as one of the world’s best equipped secondary ion mass spectroscopy laboratory), as well as state-of-the-art correlated microscopy techniques and significant means for leading-edge sample synthesis and simple device elaboration, including clean-room environments. The country’s research infrastructure will be further enhanced by the City of Science at Belval, currently being built in the south of the country (Fig. 2).

Academia. The University of Luxembourg was founded very recently, in 2003. With a population that only reached 400,000 in the mid-1990s, the country was thought to be well below the critical size for hosting a sustainable university (most western European countries have roughly 1 public university for every 1 million inhabitants). However, following Luxembourg’s entry into international finance and services in the 1990s, and as a result of its rapidly growing population since then, a competitive university has come to be seen as an essential player in a global society increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas. Given the presence of the EU Courts of Justice and international financial institutions of the country, an initial focus on law, economics and finance seemed a logical choice. However, beyond this, the country decided to build a fully multidisciplinary university, including a Faculty of Language and Literature,

Humanities, Arts and Education, as well as a Faculty of Science, Technology and Communication. The institution strives for excellence in teaching and research and, with 53% of the student body coming from outside Luxembourg, it has a distinct international feel. This is strengthened by the fact that its courses are held in three official languages (English, French and German), as well as the offer of a pioneering tri-national SarLorLux Bachelor programme, in which the first year is taught at the Université de Lorraine in Metz/ Nancy (France), the second in Luxembourg and the final year at the University of Saarbrücken (Germany).

Luxembourg will establish itself as an innovation hub by attracting and developing new emerging industrial activities. The Physics and Materials Science Research Unit (PMS-RU), which is part of the Faculty of Science, Technology and Communication, started out with a focus on polymer physics. In 2006, the Japanese electronics company TDK endowed a professorship for ‘new materials for solar cells’, therefore kickstarting the Laboratory for Photovoltaics, in which the growth and the fundamental physics of thin films of chalcopyrites and kesterites is studied, along with their use for low-cost and efficient solar cells. Today, the PMS-RU has about 50 members. The research

covers a broad range of experimental and theoretical topics of condensed-matter physics, ranging from the electronic structure of crystals and nanomaterials to the thermodynamics of soft matter. Besides the above-mentioned groups, there are groups with the following activities: nanomagnetism, soft nanoand microstructures, theory of soft condensed matter, complex systems and statistical mechanics, and theoretical solid-state physics. For materials science to become a success in Luxembourg, a close and effective collaboration between the University of Luxembourg and LIST will be essential. In this regard, the examples provided by countries such as the US, where staff researchers of the national laboratories are frequently linked to nearby universities, or Germany and Switzerland, which have a long tradition of collaboration between applied research institutes and universities, provide useful templates that can be replicated. Strong partnerships of this kind will help to create a cluster of excellence in materials science, and will enable a number of specific goals to be achieved. First, it will strengthen highlevel fundamental research in physics and materials science; second, it will facilitate the application of fundamental research to technical challenges and thus economic impact; third, it will foster an environment of high-level teaching for both graduate and undergraduate students in physics; and finally, it will help to bridge the gap between teaching and research.

Figure 2 | City of Science in Belval, Luxembourg. This is one of the largest urban renewal projects in Europe, and in addition to a commercial centre, start-up enterprises, sports facilities and apartments, it will become the centre of research and academia in the Grand Duchy. By 2018, a ‘house of materials’ (Maison des Matériaux) covering a total area of 12,500 m2 will house about 600 researchers from both the University of Luxembourg and LIST. Image © BALLINIPITT/GridDesign.


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commentary Concluding remarks

Just as for other fields identified as strategically important by the Luxembourgish government, a long-term strategy for developing materials science in the country is essential. Given the small size of the country, it is sensible to focus on a limited, strategically selected set of topics and activities, especially as the aim is to achieve international excellence. In addition to the topics discussed in this Commentary, the state invests heavily into health, biotechnology and ecotech, all of which provide inroads into emerging multidisciplinary fields such as nanoenabled medicine or bio-based materials. Moreover, the development of strategic partnerships that leverage Luxembourg’s privileged location at the French–German– Belgium border triangle (La Grande Région)


is equally important. Strengthening ties and collaborations with the renowned universities and RTOs in nearby Metz and Nancy in France, Louvain la Neuve and Liège in Belgium, and Saarbrücken and Aachen in Germany, to coordinate research strategies or the acquisition of complementary high-end equipment, would be a natural next step. Perhaps one of the main challenges in turning this vision into reality, and in turn attracting the best international talent, will be to improve Luxembourg’s visibility. Clearly, the country’s academic history is rather recent. But it can provide a young, ambitious and dynamic environment, as well as the promise of sustained long-term investment into research. Switzerland and Singapore in particular, both small countries with similar economic profiles, have shown the way to go. We are confident that by

following these examples, as well tapping into the undoubted Luxembourgish spirit of innovation, Luxembourg will acquire a significant presence on the international research map. ❐ Jens Kreisel is at the Materials Science Department at the Centre de Recherche Public Gabriel Lippmann in Luxembourg and at the University of Luxembourg. Ludger Wirtz is at the Physics and Materials Science Research Unit at the University of Luxembourg. Marc Schiltz is at the National Research Fund (FNR) of Luxembourg. e-mail: [email protected] References 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. FOCUS on Research & Innovation in Luxembourg: Making Materials Smarter No6/2012; available via


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Materials science in Luxembourg.

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