“At TNO, you can truly immerse yourself in technology”

Benjamin Brenny is an optical designer in the Optics department. At TNO, he feels he can really focus on the essence of his profession. In the future, he would like to make a broader contribution, particularly by bringing together different areas of expertise. This is, he notes with satisfaction, possible at TNO.

“Optics is one of the most diverse departments of TNO, especially regarding the applications of our work. We design and build instruments and sensors that use light measurements to collect information, which can be applied to many different situations. 

We do most of our work for the aerospace and semiconductor industries, but I’ve also collaborated on a medical application for example: an instrument with which you can recognise eye diseases in the retina. We are now going a step further, by using the analysis of blood vessels and nerve cells in the retina to detect diseases elsewhere in the body. This could make the lives of both doctors and patients easier, as it can save on expensive and time-consuming research while treatments can be carried out faster and more effectively."

Optical measuring

"Other topics we work on are energy and infrastructure, especially when it comes to structural health monitoring and predictive maintenance. Fibre optics can be used to create sensors that are extremely sensitive to changes in material properties. These can be used, for example, to determine fatigue or overloading of a bridge or wind turbine and to schedule timely maintenance. The strangest things can be measured optically – even the freshness of vegetables or milk!"

Monitoring air pollution

"A great project I worked on was Sentinel 5, an ESA satellite that monitors air pollution. This pollution is detected by means of a telescope and spectrometers. Gases like CO2, SO2 and NOx each absorb light in their own way. As a designer, I am involved in the beginning of a project. Optical design deals with optimising and aligning lenses and mirrors, aided by specialized computer software. I also have a role in the performance analysis of the design, before and after it has been built. For example, what is the impact of minor manufacturing errors with respect to the model?”

SOCIETAL RELEVANCE PROVIDES SATISFACTION

“I studied Physics in Utrecht, specialising in nanotechnology. Afterwards, I obtained my PhD in Nanophotonics in Amsterdam. Nanostructures are smaller than the wavelength of light, so you can use them for very sensitive measurements. I ended up at TNO after two former colleagues from the AMOLF institute joined the Optics department. They needed people for the Sentinel 5 project, and asked if I was interested in that. 

Prior to my PhD, I had been thinking about a career in the academic world, but I gradually discovered that I wanted to be more involved in R&D work. As a professor, you have to do a lot of management, while at TNO, you can truly immerse yourself in technology. I like the collaboration with industry, but above all the societal relevance. Take the satellite that measures air pollution or the medical instrument that detects eye diseases. Contributing to these instruments gives me great satisfaction.”

ALMOST ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

“TNO is truly a connector of people, ideas and organisations. Always at the edge of what is technologically possible. And there’s always more to it than you might think. We often hear from customers: that’s not possible, you’ll never succeed. But then we surprise them with a great result! You also get a lot of freedom to choose what you want to work on. You have to take initiative yourself, but when you do, almost anything is possible. 

I see colleagues changing roles around me all the time. I do so as well. I join some projects as an engineer, for example, because working in the lab is in line with the practical experience from my PhD. Of course, it does depend on the supply and demand of the moment, but you can largely manage your work yourself. Each team has a team leader with whom we discuss our goals and personal development. In addition, I have a technical mentor, a senior designer who often works on the same projects and teaches me the necessary skills.”

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT

“I have had a good day’s work when I have solved a problem. That could be something analytical behind the computer, but also working in the lab aligning lenses and mirrors. It’s not without reason that I do so many different things, as I am still searching for what I like best – but that’s allowed here! By nature, I am someone with broad interests, so I don’t see myself diving into the depths of one topic for many years. Incidentally, I do see colleagues doing just that, even near the end of their careers. That’s the great thing about TNO: you don’t have to become a manager to be successful here. You can’t do that anyway when you are working on cutting-edge technology, you also need experts with dozens of years of experience.

Personally, I don’t want to be concerned only with content, but also with connecting to people. That’s why I always participate in open days and career fairs where TNO is present. But before I start to look any further, I still want to build more expertise first. After all, you have to know what you are talking about before you can explain it to others!”

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