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"Caennaises" membranes on the planet Mars ?

Will a membrane procedure studied and designed by Pierre Schaetzel, Caen University Technological Institute (IUT) Professor, one day equip a French experiment on board the Mars mission that Americans are preparing for 2009 ?

Contacted by Professor Albert Jambon, MAGIE Director at the Laboratory of Physical Chemistry of Geologic Fluids of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, in the framework of an offer call sent by NASA, this membrane specialist is currently pursuing work, financed by the CNES, on a testing ground perfected in his laboratory with help from the region of Basse-Normandie. Knowing the isotopic composition of hydrogen in Mars' atmosphere is an extremely important piece of information for scientists, in particular for trying to understand the atmospheric escape of this planet. The problem is that hydrogen only appears in finite traces. To obtain good measurements of these hydrogen traces, it is first necessary to separate hydrogen from nitrogen, which is considered to be a major gas on the red planet, even if it only represents 2.5% of its atmosphere. Without this separation step, it is impossible to obtain a useable signal corresponding to hydrogen. "This is why we decided to call upon the knowledge of Pierre Schaetzel," explains Professor Albert Jambon. Multiple collaborations Pierre Schaetzel, an IUT Caen Professor, is one of those discreet researchers whose work you can simply glance at, be it past or present collaborations, to realize the quality of his work. Dazzling proof that IUTs, at least some of their laboratories, are on par with universities. Originally from Alsace, this membrane specialist traveled a lot before arriving in Caen nine years ago. After studying at the University of Rouen, he emigrated to Dakar, Senegal, where he stayed for twelve years. He created a procedures engineering department and a research laboratory. At the same time, he finished two doctorates. "Lacking real funding, I did a lot of theory on polymer diffusion," he says. Back in France, he was named Assistant Master at the University of Créteil. After two years, he went back to Africa. He returned to France for good in 1988 and went back to the University of Créteil, but left two years later to settle in Nancy as a Conference Master. "I went to learn my trade with a great man, Professor Néel." When he got to IUT Caen nine years ago, Pierre Schaetzel was forty-three and already had several fine achievements to his credit, the fruit of multiple collaborations, particularly with foreigners. "I work more often on specific projects than in the context of programs," he admits. Today, the laboratory that he runs at IUT Caen is perfecting liquid and gas phase separation procedures. "My job is to design polymers that allow separation." Pierre Schaetzel first specialized in pervaporation procedures by synthesizing membranes thanks to which it is possible to dehydrate alcohol solutions and separate ether-alcohol solutions (ETBE/ethanol, MTBE/methanol). His work next led him to develop a small ion exchange dialyzer which can extract nitrate ions from drinking water. Then, with Professor Q.T. Nguyen of the University of Rouen, a longtime collaborator, he synthesized a nanofiltration membrane with negatively charged pores to separate divalent cations (calcium) and monovalent cations. Work on very current subjects It is not surprising that Professor Albert Jambon called upon Pierre Schaetzel in the framework of his laboratory's proposition to the NASA offer call. "We think that it is possible to do the Mars gas analysis with the help of membranes. They asked me to make them some propositions," he recalls. As with each of his projects, Pierre Schaetzel started with theory in order to do groundwork for the ideas and show that it was possible to respond favorably to the request of the Pierre and Marie Curie University team. "We showed that two levels of membranes were necessary, that we didn't need gas vectors, that it sufficed to put in a vacuum pump powered by solar energy and that it would be possible to selectively separate, then analyze, hydrogen isotopes with the aid of a mass spectrometer (although the hydrogen ions are a minority group on Mars, about 20 ppm)," says the Caen researcher. To create the testing ground, the Regional Council of Basse-Normandie, via the Polymer Network and a regional postdoctoral grant, enormously helped Pierre Schaetzel, who emphasizes his gratitude. "The first results are very encouraging," declares Albert Jambon. It is very rare that such a small research structure participates in this type of project. Proof, once again, of the renowned savoir-faire of this man who perhaps does not have all the financing he could expect, given the results of the experiments he leads. One of the particularities of Pierre Schaetzel is that he works with a lot of thesis students. Some of them are today professors, at the University of Tsinghua in Beijing, the University of Algiers, and the University of Nancy. One thing is sure : the students who cross the threshold of his laboratory are never disappointed. Undoubtedly they don't always find the financing offered in other laboratories. However, they are sure to meet a passionate, albeit not always well understood man, who will give them very current projects (micro fuel cells, CO2 sequestering, etc.). Contact -,IUT de Caen - IUT Cherbourg Manche,Laboratoire de thermodynamique des procédés,,Pierre Schaetzel - e-mail:,Tel. + 33 (0) ,Source : ScienceTech Basse-Normandie Newsletter,,Free subscription :


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