Werner Siemens foundation supports project at RWTH Aachen University

  Prof Jürgen Klankermayer and Prof Regina Palkovits Copyright: © WSS/Felix Wey

RWTH professors Regina Palkovits and Jürgen Klankermayer are successful in the competition for the WSS Research Center and receive 100 million Swiss francs for sustainability research.

On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, the Werner Siemens Foundation (WSS), based in Zug, Switzerland, announced an ideas competition for the establishment of a WSS research center to research technologies for the sustainable use of resources. The winner has now been announced: the RWTH Aachen team led by Professor Jürgen Klankermayer from the Chair of Translational Molecular Catalysis and Professor Regina Palkovits from the Chair of Heterogeneous Catalysis and Technical Chemistry came out on top against 122 other ideas from Germany, Austria and Switzerland with their project "catalaix: Catalysis for a circular economy". In future, they will develop catalysis-driven recycling processes in a WSS research center that will enable a multidimensional circular economy. The WSS is providing the center with a total of 100 million Swiss francs for a funding period of ten years.

With funding from the Werner Siemens Foundation, researchers from RWTH Aachen University and Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ) will establish a research center to pave the way for a circular chemical industry. The research work will focus on catalysis - the technology that increases the speed of chemical reactions or makes them possible in the first place. Catalysts help to create the starting materials for a variety of products that are essential to our daily lives. However, the majority of these products still end up as waste at the end of their life. The team led by Klankermayer and Palkovits wants to change this by using newly developed catalysts and processes to break down such products into recyclable molecular building blocks. "Until now, chemists have mostly been looking for new catalysts that form bonds," explained Klankermayer. "But we also need catalysts that break bonds, and we have to think about recycling when manufacturing future products."

The first focus of "catalaix" is on the plastics sector. Humans produce 400 million tons of plastic per year - 16 gigatons are expected to be produced by 2050; this is the combined weight of all humans, animals and fungi on earth. Today, only nine percent of all plastics are recycled - such as PET bottles, which are shredded and remolded into new PET bottles. Such one-dimensional cycles are not suitable for a holistic approach, said Regina Palkovits. "Different plastics are produced in different quantities, and their lifespan is different: packaging has to be reintegrated into the cycle after perhaps six months, while building insulation only after 30 years." The Aachen team will convert plastics into reusable raw materials by combining chemical, electrochemical and microbial catalysis processes. They have already demonstrated that this can work for various classes of plastics.

However, the researchers' idea goes beyond individual and isolated material cycles. They will further develop the circular economy according to the "open-loop principle". This means that the molecular building blocks that are created as starting materials through recycling can be tailored and used in such a versatile way that they can also be fed into other value chains and material cycles as required. This will create the basis for a flexible, multidimensional circular economy.

The Rector of RWTH Aachen University, Professor Ulrich Rüdiger, congratulated the catalaix team. "A great success. The transformation of linear value chains to a holistic, closed-loop circular economy is a task for the century. I am convinced that the WSS research center "catalaix" will make an important contribution to the establishment of a multidimensional circular economy and to social transformation."

Jürgen Klankermayer and Regina Palkovits will be supported in the core team by Lars Blank, Alexander Mitsos and Grit Walther. In order to do justice to the complexity of the problem, twelve other professors from RWTH Aachen University and the FZJ are also part of the "catalaix" team, so that an arc can be spanned from catalysis to the process to a systems view.

Further information on catalaix can be found on the web pages of the working groups of Prof Jürgen Klankermayer and Prof Regina Palkovits.