A decade of excellent catalysis research

13 July 2017

With a total sum of about fifty million euros, the German Research Foundation (DFG) sponsored the cluster of excellence, UniCat, and its graduate school, the BIG-NSE. The 10th anniversary of their existence is being celebrated with the symposium entitled “Unifying Concepts in Catalysis: Status Quo and Challenges” at the TU Berlin.

Christian Thomsen, Steffen Krach © UniCat / Martin Penno

The event was opened by the Berlin State Secretary for Science and Research, Steffen Krach, and the President of the TU Berlin, Professor Dr. Christian Thomsen. “We are very proud of the many scientists who over the last ten years have generated so many new research discoveries in the important field of catalysis. What marks out this cluster of excellence in particular is also the strong cooperation with other university and non-university partners. UniCat has developed its own brand and thereby achieved an international reputation,” Thomsen said on the occasion of the ten-year jubilee.

Steffen Krach added: “Throughout the past ten years, the UniCat cluster was in many ways a role model and – just to use another part of its name – a catalyst for new initiatives. Many argue that international cooperation is something natural to research – and of course they are right. However, in times when we witness the rise of populism and nationalism in many places around the world, keeping up and strengthening research cooperation across borders is more important than ever.”

Within the cluster of excellence UniCat, chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers from four universities and two Max Planck Institutes collaborate across the boundaries of their disciplines and institutions: TU Berlin (host university), Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the University of Potsdam, the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society (Berlin) and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (Potsdam). In 2012, one research group of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin – joined the cluster, too.

Prof. Dr. Matthias Drieß

“One of UniCat’s greatest successes is, undoubtedly, overcoming the boundaries between the different disciplines of chemistry, physics, and biology,” Matthias Drieß is convinced. Drieß is the UniCat spokesman and professor at the TU Berlin.

Breakthroughs in Catalysis Research

Over the past ten years, UniCat has already achieved several internationally recognized breakthroughs in catalysis research. The 250 scientists from 28 countries have, among other things, advanced the oxidative coupling of methane and investigated biocatalysts to use sunlight for energy generation. For this, they analyzed the enzymes of microorganisms and thereby gained knowledge about the efficient activation of smaller molecules like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or hydrogen – reactions that are becoming increasingly important for use in the chemical industry. Last but not least, 1,700 publications in renowned journals and 50 patent registrations underscore the scientific successes of the cluster.

The chemical industry has also not overlooked UniCat’s successful fundamental research. Since 2014, some seven postdocs and ten PhD students have been conducting their research at the BasCat, BASF’s and UniCat’s so-called Joint Lab at the TU Berlin. The goal here is to establish an interface between fundamental research and application-oriented research.

UniCat members and guests of the symposium "Unifying Concepts in Catalysis: Status Quo and Challenges” © UniCat / Martin Penno

Berlin as a Center for Green and Sustainable Chemistry Start-ups

To develop Berlin as a center for green and sustainable chemistry start-ups is another goal of UniCat. In 2017, the Inkulab, financed by the Berlin economy, opened its gates: a fully equipped laboratory container system on the grounds of the TU Berlin provides free laboratory workstations for green chemistry, life sciences or nanotechnology founders. A large start-up center, a Chemical Invention Factory (CIF), for which the Berlin Senate has already committed seven million euros, is to follow.

“In the past ten years, we have learned a lot about individual catalysis processes,” said Professor Drieß. “The task now is to efficiently and dynamically combine these processes in order to ensure sustainable and resource-saving production in the future. This requires a true paradigm shift, and our proposal for the excellence strategy as "UniSysCat" also follows this direction. I look forward with confidence."

The Magazine “Unifying Concepts in Catalysis – 10 Years Cluster of Excellence” can be downloaded here.

For photos of the event go to photo gallery.