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Frank Van Kann Headshot

Emeritus Professor Frank Van Kann

School of Physics, Maths and Computing

"Follow your instincts; pursue what you enjoy rather than what you feel obliged to do. That is how to succeed."

Professor Frank Van Kann’s research highlights include participation in the NASA Gravity Probe B project at Stanford University, working with B Cabrera. This mission flew in 2004 and the final analysis was published in 2011, confirming the predictions of General Relativity with an accuracy close to the target. They developed the ultra-low magnetic field environment for the apparatus, where the field strength was sufficiently low over a volume of a few liters to ensure zero flux quanta were enclosed. It was inspiring to work with William Fairbank, who was the driving force behind five cutting edge experiments in the Low Temperature Physics laboratory.

Professor Van Kann’s role as Technical Director for Rio Tinto was also a challenging but rewarding experience. The management structure is a role model for industry research, combining commercial funding with academic expertise. The company was closely involved with the R&D, with Rio Tinto engineers and technicians working side-by-side with the university scientists. Professor Van Kann was awarded some 270 patents, in 22 families (“Patent ID”) across 26 international jurisdictions.

Most important experiences at UWA

Leading a high-profile industry funded and managed researcher and development project and learning how to coordinate the activities of a large institution in the form of UWA with those of a major corporation in the form of Rio Tinto. An interesting aspect of this was a visit by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, who requested to travel to UWA explicitly to view the project.

Where did you think you would end up, when you began your career?

I expected to build an international research career, which started off on the right foot with my first post-doctoral position at Stanford University, working on a NASA sponsored space-borne experiment to test Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. However, I gave due consideration to the question of work/life balance and decided to build my career in Western Australia. It turned out to be a wise move.

What are some of your most significant achievements?

The outstanding one is the invention of a new instrument, a gravity gradiometer for airborne geophysical exploration and then seizing the opportunity to lead the research into a laboratory prototype and carry through to the development of a prototype field instrument, yielding useful data. The work was funded by industry, firstly British Petroleum for the laboratory research and eventually by Rio Tinto for the commercialization.

What has been the most interesting aspect of your career?

Liaising between UWA and Rio Tinto to coordinate the development of the gravity gradiometer. The work was carried out in my laboratory at UWA and funded managed by the company, with team members drawn from both organizations. The science team was drawn from UWA and the engineering team from Rio Tinto and I was appointed as technical Director to coordinate the work.

Where to from here?

One of my goals is to continue the development of the Gravity Gradiometer, with many new ideas for making improvements to the performance. I would also like to maintain my involvement with the undergraduate laboratories, developing new projects to capture the students’ imagination and motivate them to undertake some rewarding challenges.

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