Celebrating a humble research giant who studied tiny forces

Dr Ulrich Senff was many things: a German immigrant who loved cooking, soccer, poetry, music and beer, an early school leaver who acquired a PhD and my beloved stepfather. What I didn’t discover until after he died earlier this month, aged 70, is that Ulrich’s research in quantum chemistry is internationally renowned because it enabled a breakthrough after a decade-long impasse and is still key to cutting-edge technology.

I’m a trained chemist and while I knew he was proud of his PhD research I was unaware that his work was world-leading until I delved into online records so I could write his eulogy. Clearly, he was also humble. My thanks go to Dr Meredith Jordan, Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Sydney, for helping me to better understand Ulrich’s work. I regret that I didn’t fully appreciate his achievements while he was alive, so I want to celebrate them now. Below is my summation of his remarkable life.

Derivation and immigration

Ulrich was born in Borghorst, Germany, on 17th December 1951, his mother Rosel died from complications a few days later. His father Erich remarried and Ulrich was raised by his stepmother Heidel, along with his three younger siblings. Seeking greater opportunities, the family moved to Australia in 1960 and settled in Wollongong, on the southern coast of NSW.

Education and admiration

Ulrich left school at 15 to work for BHP at Port Kembla, where he stayed for almost 30 years. While working full-time he also studied quantum chemistry at the University of Wollongong. In 1987, he won the University’s award for PhD of the Year.

His ground-breaking research involved measuring the weak attractive forces between hydrogen, helium and lithium ions and dipoles: the smallest molecules, made from two atoms. The Cambridge University Professor who examined Ulrich’s PhD thesis concluded that it was ‘very high quality and certainly worthy of publication in reputable journals.’

Calculation and citation

The Professor admired how cleverly and precisely Ulrich had calculated the tiny molecular interactions. 35 years later his results are still regularly cited by researchers. Amazingly, his results were accurate for the time and his interpretation of the chemical structures is a benchmark for modern calculations. Because the forces that Ulrich studied are fundamental to every chemical reaction, when he quantified them he enabled a myriad of scientific and technological advancements.

Ulrich’s contribution is a foundation on which Australia is building new, safe methods to store hydrogen – the green fuel of the future – for domestic energy needs or export. His discoveries are also important in astrophysical studies of stars, space dust and cosmic rays.

Calibration and commercialisation

As the head analytical chemist for what is now BHP Billiton, Ulrich applied his research to determine the chemical composition of primary materials (iron ore and coal) and the final product of the steel-making process, becoming expert in X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry. Over the course of his career, he travelled around the world calibrating XRF spectrometers and training people to use them more accurately for research and industrial purposes. He updated the Australian Standard for XRF Spectrometer Precision, which was adopted by the International Standards Association.

He helped an Australian start-up (now AXT Pty Ltd) to prototype, prove and produce commercial quality re-engineered XRF tubes. Ulrich was a Director of AXT from 1992 to 2009 and worked with the company until 2015. In 1995, he was headhunted by ANU for his outstanding expertise, and moved to Canberra with his partner Kay. He assisted another start-up called UniQuant to develop revolutionary software for XRF spectrometry that did not require reference samples, enabling creation of fast, portable spectrometers for field analysis.

Inspiration for the next generation

At home, Ulrich had a chemistry kit that would not have passed any test for child safety. It was about four times bigger than the kits stocked by toy stores, with contents that could blow your head off! My sister Karin and I loved assisting him with experiments on the dining room table.

With hindsight, I can clearly see the strong influence he had on my choice of studies and career direction. I am so proud of his achievements and legacy, which inspire me to continue my work with Australian researchers and innovators: people who are striving to make positive change in the world by developing new knowledge and technology – just like Ulrich.