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TU Berlin: UniCat classed as excellent once more

The Cluster of Excellence consolidates its pole position in catalysis research

On 15th June 2012, the Joint Commission of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the German Council of Science and Humanities for the Excellence Initiative announced in Bonn that they would continue to support the Cluster of Excellence "Unifying Concepts in Catalysis" (UniCat) to 2017. This means that in the coming 5 years up to €33 million will be invested in Berlin and Potsdam.

UniCat is the only Cluster of Excellence researching catalysis, an area that is of significant economic importance. This interdisciplinary research network brings together more than 250 scientists working in the fields of chemistry, physics, biology and process engineering from four different universities (the Technische Universität Berlin as host university, the Freie Universität Berlin, the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Universität Potsdam) and two Max Planck Institutes.

The Cluster has a unique selling point in international research: through its focused research programme, the UniCat scientists are paving the way to forging stronger links between chemical and biological catalysis. The group is researching new possibilities for the catalytic activation and subsequent transformation of small molecules that are extremely important for the processes involved in raw material change. The molecules in question are methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Clever catalytic processes are used to turn these into useful materials for the production of polymers, medicines and chemical energy sources that do not require the use of oil. Furthermore, the scientists in the Cluster are also researching the production of new antibiotics and diagnostic agents for use in medicine by the coupling of biocatalytic processes.

Hydrogen is an excellent, environmentally sound chemical energy source and is key to the production of petroleum substitutes. The sun and hydrogen are the keystones of future energy provision. Within the framework of the Cluster, researchers at the HU Berlin have successfully coupled two suitable enzymes in a test tube and used these for the light-driven production of hydrogen. The process is the most efficient of comparable systems in the world. The target now is to establish the most efficient biological production of hydrogen from light and suitable bacteria, in order to be able to use it subsequently in the process on a larger scale.

Working towards the more efficient use of raw materials, UniCat is also researching the better use of the methane that is present in natural gas and biogas. One of the group's ambitious targets as part of this is the highly efficient production of ethylene through what is known as the oxidative coupling of methane. Ethylene is a raw material that is essential in the chemicals industry for the production of polymers and medicines. Up to now it has mainly been obtained from oil. In order to be able to make use of the results of basic research on an industrial scale more quickly, an earlier phase of the UniCat research programme saw the commissioning of a mini-plant test facility on the premises of the Technische Universität Berlin in December 2009. This alone was reason enough for BASF SE and the TU Berlin as UniCat host university to sign a contract founding the UniCat-BASF Joint Lab.

In 2011 UniCat bestowed the Clara Immerwahr Award for excellent young female scientists in the field of catalysis for the first time. The Award was given to Dr. Kylie Vincent of Oxford University. Overall, scientists working in the Cluster have been offered chairs in some 20 other renowned universities. All seven junior group leaders offered these positions accepted them, while only two professors took up the offers. This clearly indicates the very high scientific quality of the research carried out within, as well as the excellent working conditions offered by, UniCat. In addition, the researchers within UniCat, who all make significant contributions to the Cluster of Excellence, have been able to bring in an average of €300,000 each annually in external funding over the last five years.

Future UniCat activities

One priority area of research on which an even stronger emphasis will be placed in future is putting the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to productive use in the manufacture of important chemical raw materials such as carbon monoxide and formic acid.

"We want to ensure the sustainability of the UniCat commitment to integrated catalytic research through a broad spectrum of measures," emphasises UniCat chair Prof. Matthias Drieß of the TU Berlin. "In order to retain the skills that we have built up within UniCat in the future, the intention is for projects such as this to take place with the support of the Berlin state government, under the auspices of the Gerhard Ertl Center, which will open its doors on 8 October 2012."

On top of this, a new joint laboratory is under construction on the TU campus in partnership with private industry. This is the UniCat-BASF Joint Lab, which is intended to speed up the implementation of scientific results in industry. The promotion of cross-disciplinary training programmes for young scientists in the UniCat Graduate School BIG-NSE (Berlin International Graduate School for Natural Sciences and Engineering), founded in 2007, and in a multi-university and inter-regional Master's programme that is to begin in the winter semester 2012/2013, is part of this aim. In addition to all of this, the UniCat researchers have built up a national and international network of strategic partners that they are using to further the work of the Cluster and that they will continue to enlarge.

For further information please contact: Prof. Dr. Matthias Drieß, TU Berlin, Chair of the UniCat Cluster of Excel-lence, phone: 030 / 314 - 22265, E-mail: matthias.driess@tu-berlin.de, and Dr. Martin Penno, UniCat Cluster of Excellence, Head of Public Relations, phone: 030 / 314 - 28592, E-mail: martin.penno@tu-berlin.de

idw :: 15.06.2012