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Professor Nicholas D. Spencer of ETH Zurich, Switzerland awarded Tribology Gold Medal for 2018

Institution News

Professor Nicholas D. Spencer
Professor Nicholas D. Spencer

The winner of the 2018 Gold Medal for Tribology is Professor Nicholas D. Spencer from ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

Professor Nicholas D. Spencer was born and educated in the UK, obtaining his academic degrees at the University of Cambridge, where he began his research career as a surface chemist. Following his PhD, he moved to the University of California, Berkeley, for a postdoctoral fellowship, working on fundamentals of ammonia synthesis. For the next 11 years he worked in the US chemical industry in the areas of catalysis, superconductors and analytical research. It was here, working with the new technique of lateral-force microscopy, that he first encountered tribology.

In 1993 Spencer became Professor of Surface Science and Technology, in the Department of Materials at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland, founding laboratories working in the areas of tribology, biomaterials and surface functionalization. He has served as Head of the ETH Department of Materials and President of the ETH Research Commission and has taught tribology and surface science to many generations of Swiss students, as well as having given invited courses worldwide.

Professor Spencer has made a number of outstanding contributions to the field of tribology. In the area of biomimetic tribology, he has pioneered the use of polymer brushes for microscopic and macroscopic lubrication in both aqueous and oil-based environments, significantly advancing our understanding of such systems and our ability to apply them in applications ranging from catheters to concrete slurries. By harnessing the power of imaging surface-analytical approaches, Spencer created the combinatorial approach to the study of lubricant-additive behavior, which enables “libraries” of tribological-parameter combinations to be obtained for a particular additive, which can subsequently be cross-correlated with the presence of individual surface-chemical species. By developing new surface-analytical approaches for tribology, Spencer has provided insights into many fundamental tribological phenomena. Examples include the coupling of morphological gradients with scanning-probe microscopy for investigating the influence of roughness on friction and adhesion, the development of in situ infrared spectroscopic methods for analyzing additive reactions with surfaces during tribological stress, and the use of friction-force microscopy to map chemical differences in surfaces.

Spencer is co-founder of "Tribology Letters" one of the premier journals in the field, and has been its Editor-in-Chief over the last quarter century. He is also co-founder of the Swiss Tribology Association, and the International Nanotribology Forum, under whose auspices he has organised ten workshops on nanotribology in Asia. The author of over 400 journal articles on tribology, surface functionalization, catalysis, biomaterials, and polymers, Spencer has delivered several hundred invited and keynote lectures at international meetings. He also has five books and 15 patents to his name. Spencer is a member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, and a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) and the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (US).

Professor Spencer has brought the fields of surface chemistry and surface functionalisation firmly into the tribological mainstream. He is a highly creative and influential scientist and a worthy recipient of the world’s highest honour in tribology – the 2018 Tribology Gold Medal.

Find out more

Tribology Gold Medal
Tribology Silver Medal
Tribology Bronze Medal
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