Awards > Awardee Interviews > Interview

Interview: Paolo della Porta

1992 Albert Nerken Award Recipient
Interviewed by Peter Hobson and Fred Dylla, November 12, 1992

HOBSON: I'm Peter Hobson, and Dr. Fred Dylla and myself are here to record the official videotape interview with the winner of the Albert Nerken Award for 1992. It is November the 12th, and we are at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, attending the 39th National Symposium of the AVS. First, let me describe the Albert Nerken Award itself. 

The Albert Nerken Award was established in 1984 by VEECO Instruments, Inc., in recognition of its founder, Albert Nerken, as a founding member of the American Vacuum Society, his early work in the field of high vacuum and leak detection, and his contributions to the commercial development of the instrumentation. It is presented to recognize outstanding contributions to the solution of technological problems in areas of interest to the American Vacuum Society. The award consists of a cash prize and a certificate. Unfortunately, Albert Nerken died during the past summer, but we are fortunate to have on the record a videotape taken of him two years ago at the Toronto Symposium. 

This year's winner is Dr. Paolo della Porta of SAES Getters "For his contributions over several decades to the invention and worldwide distribution of a series of getters with extensive applications, ranging from radio tubes to the largest accelerators on earth." 

DYLLA: Paolo, you've had a long, distinguished career that vacuum science and technology has been an integral part of. It's played a major role through your entire professional career. Can you tell us how your career developed, and tell us about how the work that you have done through your company and through your interactions with the Vacuum Society led to this award? 

DELLA PORTA: Yes. I'm very pleased to go back more than 40 years now. Actually, I started in the getter field and in the vacuum field purely by chance! My father was a lawyer. My father made various investments with friends, and one of these investments was a very small lab which was producing getters. They, already in the late ‘40s, invested a substantial amount of money to make machines to produce getters, but these getters were only good if used immediately, but not stable enough to resist an industrial condition. So when the first big shipment of getters was made abroad, it was a total disaster. All the getters had exploded! For this reason, my father one day called me after my graduation from university and asked me to make an assessment to decide if it was better to give up or to continue. 
I had accepted the job part time, working up to one or two o'clock in the night in the cellar of this small lab, and during this work, I invented the way to make a very good, stable vacuum alloy. And this was the very beginning, because this was the way to have a product which can be handled industrially. Then I invented the ring getter, and with the ring getter, it was possible to solve the problem of gettering in the new generation of small electron tubes, the so-called receiving tubes. It was a great success, and we decided immediately to build a factory, and at the peak of demand of receiving tubes, we were producing three million getters per day! 

But in my opinion, this is really not the secret of our success. The secret of our success has been to start immediately on the effort—a big research effort. With the help of Professor Ricca of the University of Turin, we were able to develop the instrumentation and the theory to test the performances of a getter with all gases. And we started publishing papers, and the name of SAES become apparent in the industry. When we organized the first Symposium on Residual Gases in Electron Tubes in 1959 in Como {Italy), it was a great success, and this gave to us the possibility to establish a very good close cooperation with all of our customers. The success of size has been also based on this. So the first aspect has been research—original research and products developed from original research. 

DYLLA: If you had not done that, at that point, with the demise of electron tubes, your efforts could have ended.

DELLA PORTA: Absolutely.

DYLLA: So continued research was very important.

DELLA PORTA: And not only this; this ring getter concept was very convenient for black and white television tubes. But then, we had to give major help to the industry when the color picture tubes started, because at that point, the tube life was very, very short, and we had to assist RCA and develop a completely new generation of getters, mounted in a different position. From a few hours of life in the early days, the present life of a color picture tube is about 10,000 hours. The getter was the limiting factor. But this is the getter aspect. 
In parallel with this, it became-- I created it, actually, in Italy. It was Edwards Alto Vuoto (High Vacuum), which means ‘high vacuum'. Together with Edwards, we starting working in the freeze-drying field, and the company was so successful that it asked me to become joint managing director in charge of research and development, and so I was commuting between Milan and England for seven years. And this has also been a great thing for me, because it has opened to me the worldwide perspective, because Edwards was already an international company. It put me in contact with a much larger company, and I started really creating very good, strong links with the entire world of vacuum. 
And the American Vacuum Society surely for me has been a great school. I started in '56 presenting papers here, and I've met a lot of friends and a lot of contacts, and I have learned a lot. So if I have to start-- who were my masters? My masters were Professor Ricca on one side, American Vacuum Society, and Edwards. And after that, I have developed other activities, but probably this will come later.

HOBSON: What impresses me most about your career is the number of activities that you have carried on, from inventor, scientist, laboratory director, corporate officer, and I think we will later be mentioning your role as an R&D "almost guru" on the European scene. One senses that behind all this, you must have some central philosophy that has guided you. 

DELLA PORTA: Yes. I think that this is an important point, and I consider it so important that, in the mid-'50s, I asked to put in the minutes of a Board of Directors' meeting of my company that the objective our company was to stay in high-tech, to stay in original products developed from original R&D, to stay in high-tech niches of the market where it's possible to be world leader. So this basic philosophy really is the link between all the aspects you have mentioned. 

DYLLA: I think what impressed me the most about interacting with you in the company was your personal involvement at the highest level down to the details. I first met you when I just began working in the magnetic fusion program at Princeton 17 years ago, and this was shortly after your company had developed and started marketing a whole new array of non-evaporable getters based on zirconium-aluminum alloys, and these had obvious applications in a wide variety of technology in the vacuum business, but you were very keen to point out that these devices could be used in high technology applications for the advancement of basic science. You did not particularly care if there was an economic payoff, but it seemed to me that you had a very strong sense that these devices could play an important role in pushing the science of fusion or the science behind high-energy physics or nuclear physics with large accelerators, and in my involvement with you and your company, it really impressed me that you had such a personal drive to identify these areas where your company could make an impact, and that, I think, to me, is an example of this. Your philosophy pervaded how you ran the company and how you interacted.

DELLA PORTA: I start with the first point, my personal involvement. My personal involvement is in the research—and the activity is still very high. I spend between one hour and two hours every day in the lab on the most important subject of research at the moment.

DYLLA: Even now?

DELLA PORTA: Yes, even now, every day.

DYLLA: That's a good rule for all of us.

DELLA PORTA: Every day, I go down to the lab. I go down to interview briefly the people, and if there are good, important results, I normally organize immediately a meeting, because in research, you have not to lose the spark when you see something which can be important to change or modify your plan or is the starting point for further development. The top management of the company must be aware. So this has been my philosophy. 

On the fusion aspect, I have to tell you that I have been very involved with all alternative energies, because when I was appointed a member of CERD, the Committee of Research and Development for the European Commission, advising the European Commission on the research project, I become president of the group for the alternative energies, and fusion was one of the key topics. So, I was very involved with JET (Joint European Torus), with all the various programs, and I went around the world; I have visited in Russia; I have visited TFTR (Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor), and this was the point where we started also cooperation with the TFTR. And you're right, some of these projects are not really paying money-wise, but are very important to teach our young people and to give important technical opportunities to young scientists and to train them in big projects. And this, for me, is always very important, because I think it is rewarding for the people, but it's very important for the company, because it can open new avenues of activity. 

DYLLA: Have the European policy-makers in science and the government affecting the funding of science recognized your contributions to…

DELLA PORTA: Not the Italian ones, surely, because when I was at CERD, the Italian government was furious, because nobody was aware who was this Dr. della Porta, to the point that even my cousin, who was the Italian ambassador at the European Commission, was not aware that I was his cousin! Only later, when other people become aware of my work—Professor Colombo and dr. Pecce and so on—then there was no more problem; I was accepted. But the proposal of my appointment originated from the British delegation and approved by the French and by the Germans, but not by the Italians! 

DYLLA: The products of your company have tremendously widespread use. Could you give us a few of the numbers? 

DELLA PORTA: Now, at present, in the present moment, still the largest industrial application of getter is with color television, and in color television, we make about 150 million getters per year, which represent about 85-90% of the world demand. In many other fields of application, we had a unique—at this moment, industrially for instance—alkali dispenser to make photocathodes. We are probably the only industrial producer. There's probably some internal production in some factory, but the industrial production is entirely with us. In getter vacuum pumps, for the moment, we are more or less unique. So in each field, we try to have world leadership, but with a happy integration of the world industry. You cannot be a world leader without attacking all the markets.

DYLLA: In the last five years, you've expanded on the basic R&D capabilities that your company has developed on residual gas analysis and measuring the purity of gases and handling gases, into developing products for handling and purifying gases for the semiconductor industry. Can you tell us a bit about this?


DELLA PORTA: Yes, this is another important development for the future of our company, because everybody knows the semiconductor industry is becoming the largest industry in the world, and probably the most dynamic and the most advanced one. We make internally many small gas purifiers, particularly for helium, for analytical purposes. And some purifiers for the lamp industry, because the lamp industry uses argon and xenon and krypton and so on. But I really became interested in the field of gas purification when I discovered that, using our getter material, a scientist in Japan provided to the Post Office of Japan small argon purifiers, and they have used this argon purifier to make the first 1MB DRAM in the world. This was the triggering spark, and immediately I decided to have a cooperation with the largest producer of conventional purifiers to develop a getter purifier to work in cascade with their purifiers, because the purity of the gases at the time was not good enough just to use the getter. 

DYLLA: Even though that was part per billion levels already?

DELLA PORTA: No, the industrial gases were in the 10-50 PPMs. Now, they produce gases in the range of 1-3 PPMs of level impurities, and with the getter's purifiers, we have down to the fraction of PPB. It has been measured at 7 PPTs, for instance. 

DYLLA: That's an amazing system.

DELLA PORTA: Yes, with the IPMS, it is possible to measure at this level of impurity. Water always being the big problem, as you know. 

DYLLA: What sort of range of sizes are there in gas purifiers? 

DELLA PORTA: We go from very small for analytical applications to a machine which is half of the size of this room for 1,000 cubic meter per hours of purification of nitrogen.

DYLLA: This activity is a good example of the global reach of your company. I understand it's based here in the United States with significant amount of product being shipped worldwide. 

DELLA PORTA: Sure, and this is something I am really proud of, because, after a joint venture with the Japanese, which has not been working because the Japanese were uninterested in getting technology and not exploiting commercially with us, we decided to start in California, in San Luis Obispo, the production of gas purifiers, and in 18 months, we have been able to transfer the technology from Italy to the United States, and I have to tell you that I am extremely pleased with the dedication, the strong effort, which the young American engineers have been able to put into this program. They were working up to midnight, 1:00am, Saturday and Sunday until the complete generation of purifier was established. And now we have the complete range for argon, helium, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen. This has been a great achievement. 

And this indicates that today, there are no more borders. It is possible to work with the modern system of communication with the possibility of transferring things. It is possible to really work worldwide in a single project.

DYLLA: Can you tell us something about the importance of these research collaborations to development of the products behind your company, such as the relationship you had with us at Princeton and with your colleagues around the world? 

DELLA PORTA: This has been the basic rule of our companies. Actually, we can count in the hundreds the secrecy agreements we have signed with all kinds of organizations, from industry to the military, for special programs of cooperation. All our products have been developed in very close cooperation with universities or with our customers in the frame of major projects, like LEP (Large Electron Positron Accelerator) in Geneva, like the TFTR, and I think with the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider) too, in the future.

DYLLA: Let's hope so.

HOBSON: In discussions leading up to this interview, you used an expression that struck me, that you considered yourself a citizen of the world. Would you like to expand on that?

DELLA PORTA: Yeah, sure. Apart from the fact that I spend half of my life around the world, I have always been feeling to be a citizen of the world, first because the production of the company in Italy has always been exported, up to a level of 99%; now it's 97%, but the world is our market! I have been traveling continuously. But basically, my education, my learning, comes from international contacts. It's right that Professor Ricca, in the beginning, was my teacher. I learned the basics of physics and chemistry of gettering from him.

HOBSON: I also learned quite a lot from Franco Ricca. 

DELLA PORTA: But surely, Edwards has been a great school for me, as I have mentioned before. The American Vacuum Society: I was feeling at home at the American Vacuum Society, with all of the founder members. 

DYLLA: You have been a member for almost as long as the society exists, I think. 

DELLA PORTA: Yes, only two or three years after. And another place where I really have learned a lot is EIRMA, the European Industrial Research Management Association. I have been a director of EIRMA, and there is a place where, really, nationality doesn't exist. You don't know the nationality of your counterpart. For this reason, I feel that I am a citizen of the world, and I am very comfortable in the States, too.

HOBSON: Over such a long career, you must have encountered particular personalities and particular events. Are there any of these that you would like to mention for the record at this time? 

DELLA PORTA: Yes, I have already mentioned the name of Professor Ricca. He surely has been very important for me. I can mention the name of Dr. Cecchi, who was my first contact with the TFTR, and I remember we had a very excited discussion, because he was having in mind some special application of the getters and had become very interested in it. And another person who had a great importance in consolidation of my philosophy was Dr. Pecce. We became very good friends. And I think Dr. Pecce's message is a message which goes well over the present century, and we are now having the problems he was predicting 20, 30 years ago.

HOBSON: Well, any further questions, Fred?

DYLLA: No, I want to thank you, Dr. della Porta. This is an honor for me to record these events with you and my good friend, Pete Hobson, and we thank you very much for coming to this year's American Vacuum Society, and we invite you back next year for our 40th anniversary, which will recount many of the events that you and your company have played an important role in. So thank you very much.

DELLA PORTA: Thank you very much, and I take this opportunity also to congratulate with you, because I know that from now, from the first of January, you will be the President of the American Vacuum Society. And I know it's a big honor. It's a big duty, too.

DYLLA: Yes, but I have the cooperation and the help of many friends and colleagues in this important society. 

HOBSON: Let me just add a final note that I'm sure Albert Nerken would have been delighted to have been here to have you win this award.

DELLA PORTA: Thank you very much indeed for your kind words. Thank you.