Tuesday, February 7, 2012

UniCat Cluster of Excellence and BASF establish joint lab on raw material change

On December 8, 2011, the Cluster of Excellence “Unifying Concepts in Catalysis” (UniCat) and the chemical company BASF SE signed a cooperation agreement establishing a new joint lab dedicated to the development of new catalytic processes for raw material change. The move promotes the search for alternatives to petroleum, in particular the use of natural gas. The long term goal is to ensure the continued future availability of raw materials for the production of chemicals.

BASF SE and Technische Universität Berlin are putting substantial resources into setting up the UniCat-BASF Joint Lab. BASF plans to invest up to €6.4 million during the first five years. The total volume amounts to about €13 million. Twelve postdocs and postgrads will do research in the 900 square meter lab. Installation of equipment for catalyst synthesis, characterization and testing starts in January 2012.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jörg Steinbach , President of TU Berlin, commented: “The UniCat-BASF Joint Lab will strengthen Campus Charlottenburg’s science base. The new lab is an important element in the latest round of the competition for excellence.”

Dr. Friedrich Seitz , head of the BASF Competence Center Chemicals Research and Engineering, stressed the alliance’s strategic importance: “Natural gas, carbon dioxide and biomass can replace petroleum as raw materials for the chemical industry in the future. Before that happens, a number of challenges remain to be solved. The joint lab helps us to pursue multidisciplinary approaches in catalysis for raw material change, especially when it comes to activating less reactive molecules,” he explained.

“The establishment of the ‚UniCat-BASF Joint Lab will bring the scientific results of our research alliance to fruition more quickly for industrial use,” said Prof. Dr. Matthias Drieß , chair of the UniCat Cluster of Excellence.

“The ‘UniCat-BASF Joint Lab’ not only creates new jobs, it also inspires new ideas for cooperative ventures with internationally leading companies in raw material change and sustainable chemistry,” commented undersecretary of state Dr. Knut Nevermann ,  Berlin Senate Department of Education, Youth Affairs and Science.

A number of UniCat teams have been instrumental in the success of the project. The “UniCat-BASF Joint Lab“ is to be assigned a steering committee made up of UniCat chair Prof. Dr. Matthias Drieß, Fritz Haber Institute representative Prof. Dr. Robert Schlögl, and the head of the BASF Competence Center Chemicals Research and Engineering, Dr. Friedrich Seitz.

The Perfect Liquid – Now Even More Perfect

Previous theories imposed a limit on how “liquid” fluids can be. Recent results at the Vienna University of Technology suggest that this limit can be broken by a quark-gluon plasma, generated by heavy-ion collisions in particle accelerators.

How liquid can a fluid be? This is a question particle physicists at the Vienna University of Technology have been working on. The “most perfect liquid” is nothing like water, but the extremely hot quark-gluon-plasma which is produced in heavy-ion collisions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. New theoretical results at Vienna UT show that this quark-gluon plasma could be even less viscous than was deemed possible by previous theories. The results were published in “Physical Review Letters” and highlighted as an “editors’ selection”.

Highly viscous liquids (such as honey) are thick and have strong internal friction, quantum liquids, such as super fluid helium can exhibit extremely low viscosity. In 2004, theorists claimed that quantum theory provided a lower bound for viscosity of fluids. Applying methods from string theory, the lowest possible ratio of viscosity to the entropy density was predicted to be h/4? (with the Planck-constant h). Even super fluid helium is far above this threshold. In 2005, measurements showed that quark-gluon-plasma exhibits a viscosity just barely above this limit.  However, this record for low viscosity can still be broken, claims Dominik Steineder from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Vienna UT. He obtained this remarkable result working as a PhD-student with Professor Anton Rebhan.

The viscosity of a quark-gluon plasma cannot be calculated directly. Its behavior is so complicated that very sophisticated methods have to be applied, says Anton Rebhan: “Using string theory, the quantum field theory of quark-gluon plasma can be related to the physics of black holes in higher dimensions. So we are solving equations from string theory and then transfer the results to the physics of the quark-gluon plasma.” The previously established lower bound for viscosity was calculated in a very similar way. However, in these calculations the plasma was modeled to be symmetric and isotropic. “In fact, a plasma produced by a collision in a particle accelerator is not isotropic at the beginning”, says Anton Rebhan. The particles are accelerated and collided along one specific direction – so the resulting plasma shows different properties, depending on the direction from which one looks at it.

The physicists at Vienna UT found a way to include this anisotropy in their equations – and surprisingly the limit for the viscosity  can be broken in this new model. “The viscosity depends on several other physical parameters, but it can be lower than the number previously considered to be the absolute lower bound”, Dominik Steineder explains. The on-going quark-gluon-experiments at CERN  will provide opportunities for testing the new theoretical predictions.

Original publication:
Anton Rebhan and Dominik Steineder; Violation of the Holographic Viscosity Bound in a Strongly Coupled Anisotropic Plasma; Phys. Rev. Lett. 108, 021601 (2012)

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Towards artificial photosynthesis for solar hydrogen generation

 Water splitting in photo-electrochemical cells to yield hydrogen is a promising way to sustainable fuels. A team of Swiss and US scientists now made major progress in developing highly efficient electrodes – made of an algal protein, thus mimicking a central step in natural photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis is considered the «Holy Grail» in the field of sustainable energy generation because it directly converts solar energy into storable fuel using nothing but water and carbon dioxide (CO2). Scientists have long tried to mimic the underlying natural processes and to optimize them for energy device applications such as photo-electrochemical cells (PEC), which use sunlight to electrochemically split water – and thus directly generate hydrogen, cutting short the more conventional approach using photovoltaic cells for the electrolysis of water.

Traditionally, PEC electrodes are made of semiconducting materials such as metal oxides, some of which are also known for their photocatalytic properties. For quite some time, researchers at Empa’s Laboratory for High Performance Ceramics (LHPC) have been investigating nanoparticles of these materials, for instance titanium dioxide (TiO2), for the neutralization of organic pollutants in air and water. Collaborating with colleagues at the University of Basel and at Argonne National Laboratory in the US, they now succeeded in making a nano-bio PEC electrode, consisting of iron oxide conjugated with a protein from blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria), which is twice as efficient in water splitting as iron oxide alone.

Iron oxide, in particular hematite (alpha-Fe2O3), is a promising electrode material for PEC because it is susceptible to visible wavelengths and thus uses sunlight more efficiently than photocatalysts like TiO2, which can only use the UV part of solar radiation. What’s more, hematite is a low-cost and abundant material.

The second ingredient in the novel electrode «recipe» is phycocyanin, a protein from blue-green algae. «I was inspired by the natural photosynthetic machinery of cyanobacteria where phycocyanin acts as a major light-harvesting component. I wanted to make artificial photosynthesis using ceramics and proteins», recalls Debajeet K. Bora who designed the new electrode during his PhD thesis at Empa. «The concept of hematite surface functionalization with proteins was completely novel in PEC research.»

After Bora covalently cross-coupled phycocyanin to hematite nanoparticles that had been immobilized as a thin film, the conjugated hematite absorbed many more photons than without the algal protein. In fact, the induced photocurrent of the hybrid electrode was doubled compared to a «normal» iron oxide electrode.

Somewhat surprisingly, the light harvesting protein complex does not get destroyed while in contact with a photocatalyst in an alkaline environment under strong illumination. Chemists would have predicted the complete denaturation of biomolecules under such corrosive and aggressive conditions. «Photocatalysts are designed to destroy organic pollutants, which are a burden to the environment. But here we have a different situation», says Artur Braun, group leader at Empa’s LHPC and principal investigator of the study. «There seems to be a delicate balance where organic molecules not only survive harsh photocatalytic conditions, but even convey an additional benefit to ceramic photocatalysts: They double the photocurrent. This is a big step forward».

The project was fully funded by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). Bora who will soon have completed his PhD thesis says he will continue what he started at Empa during a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, which he will assume early next year.

TÜV SÜD strengthens its industry segment in Italy and its global NDT network

 TÜV SÜD has acquired the Italian company Bytest S.r.l., thus strengthening its industry segment in Italy and expanding its global network for non-destructive testing (NDT). Bytest is one of the leading providers of NDT services in Italy, with 120 staff and revenue of more than EUR 11 million in 2011. TÜV SÜD recently also acquired Pro-Tec, the number one provider of NDT and inspection services on the South African market.

Non-destructive testing during production permits the manufacturers of complex industrial products to realize their high quality demands while cutting production costs. "Given this, we consider the NDT market a high-growth market" says Karsten Xander, Member of the Board of Management of TÜV SÜD AG. "By acquiring Italy-based Bytest and Pro-Tec in South Africa, we have expanded our global activities in this sector and significantly strengthened our industry segment in these countries."

Bytest S.r.l., with headquarters in Turin, is one of the leading suppliers of non-destructive testing services in Italy. The experts specialize in non-destructive testing during production and laboratory testing of materials as well as non-destructive material testing on site in production facilities. Further services include the training of NDT staff and audits and inspections of welding processes. Bytest's key clients come from the aerospace, petrochemical, manufacturing and automobile sectors and from the rail industry.

"By combining the services of TÜV SÜD and Bytest we can offer our industry clients in Italy a broader service portfolio, and thus the best possible support in the future", explains Dr Boris Gehring, Head of the Industry Service Division at TÜV SÜD. "For us, TÜV SÜD's international network is an opportunity to provide even better service for our European clients in the aerospace and other industries in the future", adds Franco Baratta, Managing Director Bytest S.r.l.