For Johan Åkerman at the University of Gothenburg, it’s all about making things work. And that’s not all. He wants the results of his research to be useful to society as well.
“I like applied physics, research which can be commercialised,” he says, adding with a smile: “Because this is about developing products, the most exciting aspect is working on things that don’t work – and getting them to work.”
From earliest childhood, he loved experimenting with electronics, and he also enjoyed chemistry. We don’t know what his parents thought about him manufacturing hydrogen gas in their kitchen, but they would probably agree that he had plenty of ideas and drive.
A short work day at Motorola...
After upper-secondary school, Åkerman began his academic journey in the world of physics. It started in Lund, where his friends were, took a francophone turn to Lausanne in Switzerland, then went on to Stockholm and the United States. The journey went through colourful professors with wide-ranging international networks, which eventually led him to the business community and the mobile giant Motorola. His first day at that job happened to be 11 September 2001, when the Twin Towers collapsed on live television. It wound up being a short work day, but the coming years brought many challenging tasks.
As a researcher at Motorola in Phoenix, he helped to develop the world’s only commercial MRAM to date – a magnetic RAM memory for computers.
“It wasn’t my concept, but I helped to make it work. I was the expert who went through all the errors that could arise, and I was responsible for what is called reliability. I know how hard it is to develop new technology that really works. Most people underestimate the reliability problems.”
Towards new breakthroughs in spintronics
Since 2005, Åkerman and his family are back in Sweden, and he is involved in developing new electronic components with magnetic materials. Alongside his professorship, he also heads two companies that develop measuring instruments used both in the hard drive industry and by researchers in his field.
His specialty is spintronics – a technology that uses the spin of electrons to better store and process data – for example, computer hard drives. Åkerman and his colleagues are now working towards new breakthroughs in spintronics.
“The dream is to get our components out on the market, to make them commercially viable. We actually make the world’s smallest microwave oscillator, just 20 nanometres in size. What’s extra exciting right now is all the possibilities of using our technology for artificial intelligence. Spintronic neutrons that sync within five nanoseconds allow us to create hardware for ultra-fast image recognition. I hope it will be a smash hit!”
Brand-new adventures overseas
The microwave oscillators are used in mobile phones, wireless networks and base stations for mobile networks. They can also be used for radar detectors and for transmitting large amounts of data. Companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon also use giant magnetic hard drives, for example to store all the images that are uploaded.
Åkerman himself mostly uses Facebook to share his thoughts. In the past, he was more visible in the media, in blogs and in popular science contexts. He was also a part of the Young Academy of Sweden. Now research and entrepreneurship are his focus, as well as a brand-new adventure on the horizon: He has been offered the opportunity to take a sabbatical year to work as a guest professor at New York University.
“So now I have to look for a flat and tie off all the loose ends at home before my family and I go… Yeah, we have our hands full,” Åkerman concludes.
The auditorium in the main building at the University of Gothenburg isn’t just beautiful – it also has a grand piano. Physics professor Johan Åkerman loves to play the piano, and especially a grand piano when he gets the chance. Here, he is alternating classical pieces with Gloria Gaynor’s hit “I Will Survive”.
More about Johan Åkerman
Born: 20 March 1970 in Malmö. Grew up in Rosengård, Arjeplog, Tranemo and Lund.
Lives: In Sollentuna, but spends a few days each week in Gothenburg.
Family: Wife and three children, aged 14, 14 and 9.
Job: Professor of physics at the University of Gothenburg, guest professor at the Royal Institute of Technology.
Career in brief: Attended the natural sciences programme at Katedralskolan in Lund before he began studying engineering physics at Lund University. The last two years of his undergraduate studies took place at the EPFL technical university in Lausanne. After that, he earned his doctorate in material physics at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and then did his postdoctoral work in San Diego, California in 1999. Two and a half years later, he started working at Motorola in Phoenix, Arizona. After another four years in the United States, he returned home to Sweden and KTH, when he received the Individual Grant for Future Research Leaders from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research. Several major financiers helped him to build up his operations and an advanced laboratory. Since 2008 Åkerman is a professor at the University of Gothenburg. He also has one foot in at KTH.
Leisure interests: “I play the piano (or grand piano if possible), and for a long time I was second tenor in a men’s choir. I’ve always enjoyed languages and music, and I played in a band when I was younger. In a way, language and music are linked to maths and programming – it’s all language, just different kinds. Everything requires practice if you want to get good at it, and if you don’t have patience, it is hard to succeed at any of it.”
Favourite place for inspiration: “Nature – I love hiking in the mountains. Music also gives me inspiration. I like travelling, and I do a lot of it in my work, but it’s a double-edged sword – it generates a lot of carbon dioxide.”
Most proud of: “That we have a company that makes measuring instruments in my research field – and that it’s self-sufficient. I’m also proud of having helped to develop the world’s only commercial MRAM to date – a magnetic RAM memory for computers – based on spintronics. And of course, I’m proud of my children!”
Motivation: “Curiosity. I love to go ‘down the rabbit hole’, and Wikipedia is a constant source of new, exciting knowledge. Another motivator is making things work. I’m fairly entrepreneurial in my working methods. The things I do should have a practical use.”
First memory of physics: “I remember my first computer memory. It was an amazing thing when I got to see an ABC 80 that my dad (who was a teacher) borrowed over the Christmas holidays. I really enjoyed experimenting with electronics and chemistry as a kid. I made hydrogen gas at home in the kitchen, and in my early teens I arranged study circles so that we could buy fun things to use in the lab.”
Best thing about being a scientist: “The freedom you have, if you manage to bring in enough research funding. It’s a lot of fun working in international research teams and getting to experience different countries and cultures, both at home and while travelling.”
Challenges of the job: “Time! I want to stay focused on the tasks and projects that are fun to do, so I’m constantly struggling to keep the administrative and bureaucratic aspects from taking too much of my time.”
Dream for the future: “To have a real breakthrough with our components. For example, we make the world’s smallest microwave oscillator, just 20 nanometres in size. We also work with image recognition – pattern matching – for hardware.”
Image 1: Henrik Sandsjö
Image 2: Mia Halleröd Palmgren