The “Center for the Transformation of Chemistry” (CTC), which in autumn 2022 was one of two winners of the competition “Knowledge creates perspectives for the region!” organised by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of the Free State of Saxony and the State of Saxony-Anhalt, is now getting down to work in the city of Delitzsch, Saxony. Chemistry Professor Ulrich S. Schubert of Friedrich Schiller University Jena has played a key role in this success, and in enabling the first steps now being taken by the new research centre. He sees the CTC as a new “centre of gravity” that will provide global impetus and will hugely benefit the science and business site that is “Central Germany” (Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia).
Since October 2021, Prof. Schubert has been part of the core team around coordinator Prof. Peter Seeberger of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, who submitted the basic idea for the concept phase application in spring 2021. For the draft project that was selected, Prof. Schubert then developed, presented and defended the concept of the CTC together with Prof. Seeberger and other members of the core team. “Prof. Seeberger, the other members of the core team and I see it as a duty and a challenge for the future to rethink chemistry and make it more sustainable. The new centre is an extremely powerful basis for this,” says Schubert. “It was important to me – not least as a representative of science in Central Germany – to contribute my expertise here, to help shape the urgently needed transformation of chemistry.”
In a time marked by energy crises and climate change, he says, changes are required, both in raw materials and production processes. Instead of using gas and oil, waste products from nature should be used as basic chemicals. Carbon dioxide should no longer be emitted, but used as a raw material. “We can no longer do chemistry in the same way as 150 years ago in laboratories that basically still look the same as they did 75 years ago,” says Seeberger. Instead, digital methods – based on artificial intelligence, for example – must increasingly find their way into chemical research and thus make it more effective and sustainable.
Jena priority areas brought into the CTC
Schubert also brings such topics – which are strengths of his – to the CTC. For example, he is considered a pioneer in the field of automated high-throughput research in polymer sciences. This means that instead of conducting one experiment after another for research, he uses robots in his institute in Jena to run hundreds of experiments simultaneously. This produces highly comparable data, which is then evaluated by artificial intelligence. Trends can be derived from this, for example in developing new polymers, which enable researchers to make statements about structure-property relationships. In this way, Schubert and his team can design the subsequent experiments more effectively, which will save energy, raw materials and time.
The Jena chemists have also dedicated themselves to sustainability in other subject areas. “For example, we’re working on self-healing materials, so that substances can be used for longer, and we’re trying to make materials reusable that are currently not recyclable. We’re also developing batteries that have a small carbon footprint because they do not contain any metals,” explains Schubert. “The CTC provides perfect conditions to create technological foundations for all these areas, which we can take further in Jena.”
What will happen in the coming months?
The project phase begins in January and will mainly involve work on the organisational basis of the CTC. Prof. Seeberger will establish an office, set up structures (the Centre will be supported by a foundation) and prepare plans for new buildings and further infrastructure. In addition, initial pilot projects are to start in order to begin research immediately. “This phase requires rigorous concepts, as there are no templates to guide this first centre of its kind in this country,” explains Schubert. From 2026, when institutional funding starts, new buildings are to be built in Delitzsch and some 1,000 new employees will gradually start work.
Schubert sees huge potential in the new centre for real structural change, of the kind the German federal government is aiming for. “The region has the opportunity here to continuously produce innovations, which will enable larger companies to settle here and position themselves at the beginning of a new value chain. Highly skilled jobs with corresponding remuneration will be created here,” he says. “The CTC can develop a charismatic image, which will benefit centres such as Leipzig, Halle, Dresden or Jena and develop Central Germany, which has grown historically into a site for chemistry research and development, into an international driver of innovation.” Part of the centre is therefore also a kind of “manufactory”, through which innovations and patents will be spun off efficiently, and competently supported in all phases. This is how the envisaged transformation of chemistry will work its way into commercial practice.