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The right chemistry

Interview: HANS SCHUH

Young researchers want to make the world a better, greener place. Interview with Ferdi Schüth.

The right chemistry© Max-Planck-Institut MühlheimFerdi Schüth has been the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Carbon Research since 1998. A winner of the Leibniz Prize, he is one of Germany's most eminent chemists
DIE ZEIT: The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Chemistry. You attended the launch event with Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday. Why is chemistry particularly important at the moment?

Ferdi Schüth: Chemistry is not only one of the key sciences for overcoming major problems facing humanity, it is also a cultural asset - it is in simply everything. It interweaves our whole life, from clothing to cookery to love. This can be seen very clearly in molecular gastronomy. Chemistry also shapes our future, for instance by solving the current resource and energy problems. This was particularly apparent at the launch event.

ZEIT: Chemistry is regarded by many as a science that is hard to understand, and it is associated with a risky industry responsible for heavy metals, pesticides, dioxins and overturned acid tankers. Are we being distracted from chemistry's dark side?

Schüth: Not at all, the risks are known too and must remain under careful observation. Not least for this reason, the dark side has become significantly lighter. Chemistry is seen in a much more positive light than it was 20 years ago. It is no longer regarded as largely a problem-causer but increasingly as a problem-solver. It has become more sustainable, and is helping to conserve resources and the environment. Most chemists, and particularly young students and doctoral candidates, are seriously committed to making the world a better place.

ZEIT: Italy recently banned plastic bags because of plastic waste lying around everywhere. The problem is to be solved by compostable bioplastics. It this a step forward?

Schüth: That is not easy to answer and requires a careful environmental performance evaluation. Bioplastics are not necessarily better than polythene. The ideal answer would certainly be reusable cloth bags. But we all still continue to use plastic bags, so the problem needs to be addressed.

ZEIT: Some forecasts say that 90 percent of all plastics could be manufactured from renewable raw materials. That amounts to hundreds of millions of tons per year. The main sources are potatoes, wheat, maize or sugar, and this poses a major threat of competition with food production. Doesn't this kind of eco madness equate to stealing food from the poor?

Schüth: That is a simplistic argument. Hunger is not a production problem but a distribution problem. But we cannot use the limited agricultural land for three types of production - food, raw materials and fuel - simultaneously in future.

ZEIT: Chemists stress that crude oil is too valuable a resource to be burned as heating oil or petrol. This is also true of agriculturally produced raw materials such as biodiesel, bioethanol or biogas, which are highly subsidised to be burnt by the megaton. Doesn't this make your hackles rise?

Schüth: Yes, because both resources are indeed too precious to burn. Careful studies clearly demonstrate that utilisation of materials should take precedence, even taking into account energy and climate factors. However, I don't hold out much hope of people stopping driving cars to preserve crude oil as a valuable resource.

ZEIT: Shouldn't there at least be clear priorities for the use of biological raw materials: food for people and animals first, then utilisation of materials, and finally energy from waste?

Schüth: This cascade of use is basically correct. However, biomass that is not suitable for food also exists, such as lignocellulose - a key component of, for example, wood and straw.

ZEIT: Bioplastics are advertised as being "compostable". They turn into water and CO2 and are not utilised either materially or energetically. Should the once much-vaunted large composting plants not be abolished after all?

Schüth: It would certainly be more sensible to generate electricity and district heat from bioplastics in a waste-fired power plant. Whether this is true of all biowaste, however, would first have to be demonstrated in environmental performance evaluations.

ZEIT: Building light vehicles is a way to save energy. BMW, Daimler and VW are developing cars with carbon-fibre reinforced plastic bodywork. In aircraft and windmills, materials like these are replacing metal. Is chemistry sparking a megatrend in this area?

Schüth: For both composite materials and metals, chemistry facilitates progress, as an enabling technology. Chemistry is closely linked to metallurgy. The roots of this are historically important and the two disciplines complement one another.

ZEIT: In the electro-mobility future market, the winners will be those who make the best batteries. The basis for this - electro-chemistry - has been criminally neglected in Germany. Can you still see opportunities to catch up? Or is buying in Asian know-how the only answer?

Schüth: You described the situation accurately. However, counter-measures are now being implemented in the electro-chemical sector. I definitely see a major opportunity, because car batteries are on a whole different scale from small batteries for mobile phones or laptops, where the Asians lead the way. What's more, all countries are still at the starting blocks when it comes to the required development of new types that go beyond lithium-ion technology. What worries me more are the long planning phases in Germany compared to China, which acts faster. Less perfection and faster market presence would do our competitiveness a world of good.

ZEIT: Chemistry plays a central role in the development of efficient solar cells. However, poisonous heavy metals such as cadmium are used, for instance in cost-effective thin-film cells. Is the desire for cheaper ecological electricity leading us to ignore toxicological problems?

Schüth: Developers need to plan the recycling of cadmium or selenium from the outset. In this sector too, only a careful evaluation can show whether efficiency benefits justify the use of toxic substances. There are also other development trends, however, such as organic solar cells that are very economical in their use of materials and easier to dispose of.

ZEIT: Filament bulbs are increasingly being replaced by energy-saving bulbs. However, these often contain poisonous mercury, which has led to warnings by the Federal Environment Agency. Is this a storm in a teacup? Will the problematic bulbs be replaced by even more efficient light-emitting diodes?

Schüth: LEDs will replace energy-saving bulbs in the medium-term, because they are significantly more efficient. In this area too, organic light-emitting diodes or OLEDs are the latest trend. Lighting technology will become much more economical and flexible in future and, thanks to innovative chemistry, will open up totally new design possibilities.

ZEIT: Modern insulation materials are responsible for huge energy savings in buildings. Although heat insulation is worthwhile for home owners, progress is slow in this sector, particularly when it comes to renovating old buildings. What needs to be improved: chemistry, politics, education or technical implementation?

Schüth: The biggest problem is the implementation. Chemistry can make further contributions with nanofoams that are still in development, but education is lacking. And there are psychological barriers to investing money in projects that might only pay off in two decades, depending on oil or gas prices.

ZEIT: Raw materials are becoming ever more expensive, because more people have access to limited resources due to increasing prosperity. Isn't this widespread theory too simplistic, because it ignores huge hidden reserves that can be enhanced both quantitatively and through increased efficiency?

Schüth: There is a need to differentiate between raw materials. Inorganic elements do not disappear: they are just diluted in waste. Seawater is therefore an immense source of raw materials, but the concentrations of most substances within it are extremely small. To extract these requires a lot of energy, which raises the issue of price and cost-effectiveness. We do not in fact use energy resources efficiently. Even a good diesel engine in a car still runs at only around 25 percent overall efficiency. This is too low. There is still plenty of room for improvement in the use of fossil energy, from better catalysts in refineries to recovery of braking energy or the use of hybrid technology in vehicles.

From DIE ZEIT :: 10.02.2011