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2013 anniversaries: Jan Czochralski

03.01.2013 Poland

Jan Czochralski

By resolution of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, the year 2013 will commemorate three outstanding Poles: Jan Czochralski, Witold Lutosławski and Julian Tuwim. Today we profile the first of the three – an eminent scholar who for many years had remained completely forgotten.

Had Poland’s 20th-century history been more peaceful, Professor Jan Czochralski would have most probably been a Nobel Prize candidate. His invention is used today to produce semi-conductors in factories belonging to the world’s biggest electronics manufacturers: the US-based Intel and Motorola, Korea’s Samsung, or the Japanese company NEC. Almost all of the silicon used to make diodes, transistors and closed circuits is produced using the so-called Czochralski process. This explains why Czochralski is the most quoted Polish scientist ever.

It was in 1916 and by pure chance that Czochralski discovered the ingenious method of growing large crystals of metals and semi-conductors. The scientist absent-mindedly placed his fountain-pen in a container with liquid tin, instead of in an inkpot. When he took it out, he noticed that the metal had formed a thin layer of perfect crystal. His process was put to practical use in the United Stated in the 1950s.The electronics industry would not be where it is today without his method. In fact, we wouldn’t be using any appliances running on silicone – TV sets, computers, telephones, robots, microwave ovens, or quartz watches.

The Czochralski method

The Polish scientist gained fame and recognition during his lifetime, but history cut short the memory of his accomplishments. Born in 1885 in the then German town of Kcynia near Bydgoszcz, he moved to Berlin after graduating from school. There he acquired knowledge and professional experience and met his wife, Marguerite, a German of Dutch ancestry. In 1917, he founded one of the best German industrial laboratories in Frankfurt am Main and in 1919 established the German Society for Metals Science, later becoming its president. In 1924, Czochralski patented a new alloy that did not contain tin, which made it the perfect material for the production, among other things, of railway bearings. The alloy patent was purchased by the German railway company (hence its German name – “Bahnmetal”), the USSR, the United States and Czechoslovakia.

Kryształ krzemu uzyskany metodą Czochralskiego. Fot. Twisp
A monocrystalline silicon obtained by the Czochralski process. Photo: Twisp

Czochralski became a scientist of international renown and amassed a well-earned fortune: the doors to all the world’s top research centres were open to him. Nevertheless, he declined an offer by Henry Ford to manage one of his companies and in 1928 decided to return to Poland, invited by President Ignacy Mościcki – himself a scientist. A metallurgy chair was opened especially for Czochralski at the Warsaw University of Technology , an institution which he headed until the outbreak of World War Two. The scientist became part of Poland’s pre-war elite. He would host “literary Thursdays” at his villa, inviting famous poets and writers: Leopold Staff, Kornel Makuszyński, and Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski.

After the outbreak of WW II, Nazi Germany considered Czochralski German. The scientist received permission to run a plant producing German machine and vehicle parts. At the same time, Czochralski collaborated with the Polish Underground, for which his factory clandestinely produced arms, while the German commissions – including the construction of V-1 and V-2 rocket components – were sabotaged. Thanks to his German contacts Czochralski was able to get other scientists out of German Nazi prisons and concentration camps, as well as save Polish museum collections.  

Yet after WW II Czochralski was detained on charges of collaborating with the Third Reich. Despite the fact that the Communist authorities failed to find evidence of behaviour unworthy of a scientist, his academic career was essentially over. Until his death in 1953, Czochralski managed a small cosmetics plant in his home town. It was only in recent years that new proof of Czochralski’s cooperation with the Polish Underground was uncovered, leading to his rehabilitation.

Zestaw do uzyskiwania kryształów metodą Czochralskiego. Fot. Twisp
Equipment used for the Czochralski process. Photo: Twisp

Czochralski Year will be celebrated with the organization of international conferences on crystal growth in Warsaw and Gdańsk, while the newly built solar power plant in Panowice in the Lubuskie Voivodeship will be named after Czochralski. To kick off the commemorations, Czochralski’s hometown of Kcynia awarded him honorary citizenship and decided to erect a special sign at the entrance to the city, designed by his grandson, Adam Zieliński. There are also plans to create a museum and produce a documentary film devoted to Professor Czochralski. 

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