The Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne has taken on a high-profile mission: to help the winner of the America's Cup retain the trophy next year in Spain.
Switzerland's Alinghi syndicate is relying on the institute to give it a technological edge over its challengers in sailing's most prestigious event.
Ernesto Bertarelli, head of the Alinghi team, signed up the institute as the official scientific partner in 2001. After winning the Cup in 2003, the syndicate decided to pursue the collaboration.
Four of the institute's laboratories are working with the Alinghi design team, which is responsible for building the two boats to be used in the Cup. The scientists' work is financed by the university's research budget and the government's Innovation Promotion Agency.
For the university, the immediate benefits of this collaboration are a heightened profile, interest from prospective students and increased motivation for all those involved. For Alinghi, it's all benefit too.
"The advantages compared to working with private industry is with the institute we have a much broader range of expertise to select from," said Grant Simmer, head of the design team.
"Our ability to use all the knowledge within the faculty makes the relationship superior to most private-sector relationships we have."
Current projects include sail visualisation, fluid dynamics, route planning, hull monitoring, composite materials and tank testing.
The institute's role is to provide expertise which the Alinghi team does not have but needs in order to
improve the design of its yachts.
The involvement of mathematicians is a case in point. A group from the modelling and scientific computing department has been developing simulations of water and airflow around hull, sail and yacht appendage models supplied by the design team.
"I felt I wasn't the right person to work on this at first," admits Alfio Quarteroni, the head of the department. "It was only when I realised how my knowledge could be applied that I was convinced it was feasible."
In fact for the mathematicians there was little difficulty adapting the computer tools they use regularly for other work, such as modelling
aerodynamics or coastal erosion. What changed fundamentally was the work rhythm.
"You are driven by the interaction with the design team," Quarteroni told swissinfo. "This kind of interaction is totally new for us."
The collaboration between Alinghi and the institute goes beyond the virtual. One challenge in designing a Cup yacht is deciding how to assemble the sandwich structure of carbon fibre composite materials that make up the hull.
The aim is to come up with the strongest and lightest hull. But Cup rules define exactly what can be done, including what materials can
be used and how they can be assembled.
"If we have really crazy ideas, we can't use them," said Véronique Michaud of the polymer and composite technology laboratory. "What we have to do is be really innovative within the rules."
Michaud admits that while this may be frustrating – especially if a better solution exists – it might lead to construction methods that could be applied in fields such as aeronautics.
She says that one of the more interesting aspects of the project is taking an idea out of the laboratory and seeing if it will fly.
"Sometimes we can help the boat
builders, but there are other times when they are very clear that something can't be done, no matter how good it sounds," she told swissinfo.
Besides giving scientists a glimpse of the world beyond the university, the researchers also get to see faster rewards.
"It can be frustrating working with a company and knowing your results won't be applied for ten years," added Michaud.
"What's motivating here is if your idea is taken on board, you know it will be applied in two or three months."
Not every idea will make it onto the next generation America's Cup
yacht, but this doesn't stop the scientists from looking further into the future.
"We can't just sit down and say we have a good solution for the next 20 years," said Michaud. "We have to consider what will work in five to ten years time, and that's part of the challenge."
swissinfo, Scott Capper in Ecublens
The Federal Institute of Technology, located on the outskirts of Lausanne, is home to 10,000 students, researchers, academic and administrative staff.
The institute offers 13 complete study courses in engineering, basic sciences and architecture as well as a masters program in technology management.
Over 100 nationalities are represented on campus and half the teaching staff is foreign.
The America's Cup is the oldest and most prestigious trophy in the sailing world.
Switzerland's win against New Zealand in 2003 brought the trophy back to Europe for the first time since 1851. It was the first time a syndicate won the competition on its first attempt.
The first race, held in England in 1851, was won by the New York Yacht Club's representative "America". The club's yachts remained undefeated for 132 years (until 1983).
The next competition is due to be held in 2007 in Valencia, Spain.
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