In the foothills of the Harz Mountains, an international research team finds practical applications for futuristic ideas.

In the picture: Mateus Collares Weigert from Brazil, Anna Lena Baumann from Germany, Maryam Maleki from Iran, and Ahmad Abdalwareth from Egypt (l. to r.) gather in front of pollution-control devices in a lab in Goslar. © Roman Pawlowski

Imagine a brightly lit operating theater. A world-class surgeon is on call, ready to perform complex procedures. But the patient lying on the operating table and the doctor aren’t in the same room – they are hundreds of kilometers apart.

Sounds like science fiction? "It’s not," says Wolfgang Schade, a German scientist whose international team of researchers is making this scenario a reality. At the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Goslar, the Institute of Energy Research is developing a fiber-optic-sensor glove that may soon deliver complex medical treatment and other assistance from near and far alike.

A robotic hand used at Goslar's Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute © Roman Pawlowski

This fiber-optic cyber glove is just one of many innovations developed in Goslar, a city of about 50,000 near the scenic forests of Germany’s Harz National Park, about an hour’s drive from Hanover. Cyber gloves are worn like cloth gloves and use a multitude of sensors to capture data as fingers bend and flex. Virtual-reality buffs may be familiar with the technology. But the scientists in Goslar say the fiber-optic capability is new, and that its potential is high. Indeed, the innovation won a prize from the Association for Sensors and Measurement in 2016.

Now, there’s hope that this technological advance will help solve complex practical problems in the fields of medicine and communications, such as installing a catheter from afar or recognizing sign language in an instant.

The device is the brainchild of Schade and a small team of scientists from countries as far away as Iran and Brazil. About forty young researchers currently work in Goslar while studying at neighboring Clausthal University of Technology (see related story).

Cooperation between the lab and TU Clausthal ensures that scientific research conducted at the university is made available to the public, and that it is applied in a broader and more practical way for society’s benefit, Schade explains.

Funding for the institute and its various research initiatives is provided by the Fraunhofer Society, which is part of Germany’s vast network of research organizations.

Fraunhofer conducts applied research for private and public enterprises. With a 2.1 billion-euro annual budget, Fraunhofer operates 69 institutes. It is the largest organization for applied research in Europe, according to Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Clausthal Center of Material Technology on campus © Roman Pawlowski

Schade’s team works in a rectangular, two-story building in Goslar. The location is convenient – just 15 kilometers down the road from the university campus in Clausthal-Zellerfeld. The scientific team’s home of theory and calculation is on the second floor. Scribble-filled notebooks and unfinished cups of coffee rest on desks. Computer screens with complex algorithms crowd the work space.

On the ground floor, team members get their hands dirty. Four laboratories each focus on different aspects of laser technology. There’s a cubic chamber about four meters tall just outside the labs. It can regulate both temperature and humidity in experiments. Within it, researchers can simulate different environments found on earth – a desert climate, say, or a hot and humid rainforest. Close by, two large ovens are used to test how batteries respond to different temperatures and other stimuli.

The focus of the institute’s work is the field of photonics, and fiber-optical sensor systems are at the heart of the research. Optical fibers are flexible glass fibers, slightly thicker than a human hair. For decades, they’ve been used to transmit vast amounts of information at light speed.

Schade’s team has modified these fibers so that they function as sensors that can measure nearly everything – from temperature to molecular concentration to three-dimensional shapes. This allows them to collect information from otherwise inaccessible places, like a catheter inside a human body or a lithium battery in the power unit of an electric car. The modifications also allow the fibers to deliver that information instantly – to a computer or a database, anywhere in the world.

The practical application of complex research drew Maryam Maleki to the institute in Goslar. The 31-year-old PhD student studies fiber-optic sensors that could identify cancerous substances and explosive materials.

Maleki, a native of Isfahan in central Iran, is one of seven foreign researchers on Schade’s team. Her professor back home in Iran, who had graduated from TU Clausthal, had recommended the German university. Maleki could have attended more globally known universities in Germany or even North America, she says. She chose TU Clausthal because she was fascinated by the research potential of fiber-optic sensors and lasers, and because she wanted to study at a school with close ties to industry.

This article was excerpted from ZEIT Germany 1/2018.

She misses home sometimes but appreciates the German countryside. "In Iran, I had to live in a big, crowded city to study at a top university. And that distanced me from nature," she says. The research, she admits, can be stressful. The experimental work she’s engaged in doesn’t always produce the expected results. But her colleagues have been welcoming and supportive from the moment she joined the team in September 2017.

"It’s exciting to get acquainted with different people from around the world, with different languages and thoughts," Maleki says about the culturally diverse research team. "I am comfortable here. I am Muslim, and I feel free to practice my belief."

All the researchers on the team either speak German or are taking courses to learn it. But the official language in the lab is English.

Maleki shares an office with Anna Lena Baumann, a native of Konstanz, a lakeside city in the state of Baden-Württemberg, and with Mateus Collares Weigert, a Brazilian who joined the team last January.

One researcher in the high-tech lab feels like a child having fun on a playground

For Weigert, who holds a Master of Science degree in 3D printing from Federal University of Technology Paraná, the opportunity to work with people who grew up in different environments is exciting. But the best part, he says, has been the explorative approach his professors take.

In the Goslar lab, Weigert feels like a child having fun on a playground. "I can work, I can experiment, I can test, I can even make my own sensors if I want," he says, adding that at his university back in Brazil, "I didn’t have this support or these devices."

Ultra-short light pulses in action © Roman Pawlowski

Ahmad Abdalwareth, a 27-year-old from Cairo, is one of the lab’s youngest researchers. He came to TU Clausthal as an exchange student to complete a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering. He decided to extend his stay at the technical university to study towards a master’s degree in energy and materials physics.

Abdalwareth says he appreciates the opportunity to study abroad. While he has enjoyed Germany, he says he is determined to return to Egypt at some point and make use of the knowledge he’s acquiring during his studies in Germany. "A lot of people in Egypt didn’t have the opportunity that I do," he says. "Maybe with this knowlege, I can do something important back there."

Bringing together researchers from different countries and backgrounds drives innovation, according to Schade. And he should know: He spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow and visiting professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, in the western part of the United States.

"It is always very helpful to see and learn how different labs work," he says. "It’s important to get students from other universities into our group. They always bring new impetus, new impact, and new ideas, like fresh wind."