PORTRAIT OF ALEXIS BOEGLI
Alexis was born in Lausanne. Then his parents moved to Bern, where he soon joined the city's large French-speaking community. Here he gained a good working knowledge of Swiss German and forged strong ties with the region and its culture.
He began his further education as an apprentice draughtsman-constructor, which gave him a taste for learning. Following a work placement in industry, he realised that he was not yet ready to fully commit to the world of work. He therefore pursued bilingual studies at an engineering school in Biel. Thirsty for new knowledge, he went on to take a master’s degree in electronics and physics at the University of Neuchâtel (UniNE). It was here that he secured a job in the electronics and signal processing laboratory managed by Prof. Pellandini, founder of the UniNE’s Institute of Microtechnology. After a few years, Prof. Pellandini encouraged him to write a thesis on the design of microsystems. Ever the enthusiast, he teamed up with his laboratory colleagues to establish a start-up called IP01. This brought him into contact with new fields: communicating systems and radio-frequency.
In the meantime, Prof. Pellandini retired and Prof. Farine took his place. Alexis was given carte blanche to develop his activities. He headed a group of up to ten people, and together they worked on medical systems, sensor networks and communicating systems (nowadays called “IoT”).
These new fields of expertise were soon mobilised for another project when Christian Mars, CEO of e-liberty contacted Prof. Farine, who was approaching retirement. Alexis was tasked with setting up the Innosuisse project between e-liberty, the EPFL and the HE-Arc, the financing of which was accepted at the end of summer 2018.
Following the departure of Prof. Farine, the laboratory was closed in accordance with the EPFL’s usual procedures. Alexis took the opportunity to diversify further still with two posts in complementary establishments: the Neuchâtel branch of the EPFL and the HE-Arc Ingénierie. In the first, he spends 50% of his time working in the built-in actuators laboratory (LAI) headed by Yves Perriard. In the second, he devotes 30% of his time to teaching – a new experience for Alexis – and the remaining 20% to R&D projects, where he is a member of the embedded systems skills group headed by Nuria Pazos.
Keen to keep a balance between work, family and sport, he regularly takes part in swimming competitions. Interview with an impressively versatile man.
What aspects of artificial muscle are you working on ?
The artificial muscle project involves mechanical and electronic aspects. I'm working with a Ph.D. student on the electronics part, which will serve to control the artificial muscle that my colleagues are developing. Basically, we need to find a way of transferring energy from the outside of the body to the inside. The aim is to relieve the heart using 5 watts of mechanical power.
What are the project’s major challenges ?
I will mention three of them :
- To relieve the heart muscle and control the artificial muscles, you need very high voltages, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 volts (V). At a voltage of over 50 V, a current of 0.015 amperes is enough to damage the human body. Total isolation of the electrical circuit is therefore necessary, to prevent currents from circulating elsewhere in the body. In addition, when such power is employed, it can produce heat but the inside of the human body cannot tolerate an increase in temperature of more than 1 degree Celsius. So we need to find solutions for conducting this power without producing too much heat.
- The artificial muscles that we are developing use electrostatic force: an electrical voltage applied to a condenser creates an electric field between its electrodes. This field in turn causes an electrostatic force to be applied to the dielectric material located between the electrodes. In the case of artificial muscles, the dielectric material is deformable and it is the deformation produced by the force that is useful to us. Controlling these artificial muscles is a matter of charging then discharging the electrodes. Our objective is to maximise the recovery of the charges in order to improve the system’s efficiency and limit the increase in temperature.
- Finally, we plan to use a magnetic coupling to transmit the energy from the outside of the body to the inside without contact. The intention is to use this coupling to transmit data in both directions. The system introduced into the body must therefore be capable of communicating.
We now have four years to meet these three challenges and prove that the system works, by means of a proof of concept system installed in a pig.
What do you think of the Swiss and Neuchâtel ecosystem for innovation ?
I think that we are in an extraordinarily fortunate position, but that we sometimes have trouble realising it. The HE-Arc has very close ties with industry, particularly Swiss industry. Establishments such as the EPFL bring a multicultural dimension and an open outlook on the world. They have a conquering spirit and nothing seems impossible to them. The EPFL’s excellent ranking means it can attract many talented people from abroad.
I receive many applications from Iran, China and India and they are excellent. On the other hand, Swiss applications for Ph.D. studies are rarer. I feel that the strengths of the region, and of Switzerland in general, receive little recognition and, as a result, the country’s young people think it's “normal” to have so much high-quality training available to them. It is important that we do not sit on our laurels for, being in regular contact with international researchers, I can assure you that the competition is fierce. And seen from outside the country, Switzerland’s excellence is uncontested.