Staff Spotlight: Technician finds a home living on the edge of technology
Suzette Chan & Michael Brown
Now that he has spent more than a decade in one place, it’s probably safe to say that rolling stone research technician Greg Popowich has found a home in the Department of Physics.
“I’ve always been the type of person that if I don’t like what I’m doing I try something else,” said Popowich, who was recently named Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society’s 2012 Nat Rutter Technician of the Year award winner. “It speaks for itself that I’ve been here for 13 years.”
He adds, “I’ve really been treated well here. The professors are really down to earth and have always been supportive and a real pleasure to work with. When I get up in the morning, it’s not ‘oh no, I have to go to work,’ it’s ‘what are we doing today and what’s the next piece of equipment coming, what do we have to build.’”
Popowich works with equipment for condensed matter physics experiments: ultrafast lasers, electron microscopes, thin-film deposition equipment, ultra-high vacuum technology and low-temperature refrigeration units. He says his job is to support the professors’ research in any way they ask.
“Somebody always comes in with some sort of different idea and we make it a reality,” he said. “We will design, build and modify any equipment that comes in. Even stuff that’s purchased from other companies doesn’t always do what we want it to do. We’re always looking for something different to do with that equipment. We’ll take stuff apart, we’ll modify, whatever it takes to get it to do what they want it to do.”
Popowich is currently finishing up work on the much-anticipated, ultra-low-temperature dilution refrigeration system, which will produce temperatures approaching absolute zero.
Though Popowich’s job is as complicated as any you’ll find at the U of A, his career has not always been in high tech. In fact, he began his working life in the depths of B.C. coal mines.
Growing up in Fernie, B.C., the mechanically inclined Popowich was rebuilding the two-stroke engines of his motorcycles by the time he was 13. Years later, he was driving and servicing 200-tonne trucks as a coal miner. “After four and a half years in the mines, I thought, ‘Okay, time to go back to school.’”
In 1993, Popowich went to the DeVry Institute for a degree in electronics. He landed a job with a semiconductor equipment firm in San Jose, California. The work involved a lot of travel—including a memorable three-week stint in China—but after three years, Popowich says, his family decided to settle down. “We wanted to come back to Canada.”
He got a job at the U of A spinoff company Micralyne, where he met one of its regular clients, physics professor Mark Freeman. In 1999, Freeman and two other Department of Physics faculty members, Frank Hegmann and Ray Egerton, pooled research funds and were able to hire Popowich full-time.
Along the way, Popowich says he had the honour of working with Don Mullin, a physics technician at the U of A since 1971.
“There was a wealth of knowledge that I was really able to tap in to. Don has been my mentor since I’ve been here, and pushed me to always do everything to the best of my abilities.”
Popowich lives by this creed, whether it’s creating the unimagin-able, living up to the department’s reputation for having “screaming clean systems,” or training students on using the equipment.
“I love working with the students, these brilliant people from all over the world,” said Popowich. “The people and ideas make the university a pretty exciting place to be. As the technology changes, so does your job, and you’re right at the front of it.”
How to make your own ultra-low-temperature dilution refrigerator
Popowich is finishing up work on what he feels could be the most complicated and challenging project of his career: the ultra-low-temperature dilution refrigeration system for John Davis.
“This was really outside of my expertise. Electronics, soldering, machining, I’ve done,” said Popowich. “But it is a whole different world getting as close as possible to absolute zero. There is so much more to consider.”
The core of the system is a helium dilution refrigeration unit that was donated to Davis. “We’re refurbishing it,” Popowich said. “I’m going to have to totally rewire it and replace all of the helium capillaries. The old-style vacuum connections have already been updated to modern fittings.”
Popowich also designed the support structure, which was required to be as free as possible from the effects of ambient building vibrations. The pillars are actually hollow aluminum columns filled with sand; each one is capped with a disc of specially chosen high-density plastic. The disc sits on the sand, but away from the insides of the pillar. On top of the discs, Popowich placed airbags on which the legs of the optical table sit.
He arrived at this elegant solution after years of observation and experience. “I adapted an auto-level system that I designed based on existing isolation tables.”
Popowich has built a second support structure for the lab. It will hold a new dilution fridge, which is being built by Oxford Instruments in England.