Werner Siemens Foundation Supports “Project of the Century” at RWTH

08/01/2024
Copyright: © WSS, Felix Wey

An RWTH team led by Professor Regina Palkovits and Professor Jürgen Klankermayer has won the Project of the Century competition by the Werner Siemens Foundation to establish the WSS Research Center and receives 100 million Swiss francs for sustainability research.

 

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To mark its 100th anniversary, the Werner Siemens Foundation (WSS), based in Zug, Switzerland, hosted an ideas competition for the establishment of a WSS Research Center to explore novel technologies for the sustainable use of resources. The winner has now been announced: The “catalaix: Catalysis for a Circular Economy” project by a research 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 entries from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

The team, consisting of researchers from RWTH and Forschungszentrum Jülich, is now set to develop catalysis-driven recycling processes in the WSS Research Center, aiming to enable a multidimensional circular economy. The WSS is providing the Center with a total of 100 million Swiss francs for a ten-year funding period.

The research work will have a particular focus on catalysis – a technology that accelerates chemical reactions or makes them possible in the first place. Catalysts help to create the starting materials for a wide range 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 cycle. 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 looked for new catalysts to create bonds,” explained Klankermayer. “But we also need catalysts that break bonds, and we have to think about recycling when developing future products.”

The first focus of catalaix is on the plastics sector. Humans produce 400 million tons of plastic per year – by 2050, this is likely to add up to 16 gigatons, which 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 turned into new PET bottles. According to Regina Palkovits, such one-dimensional cycles are not suitable for a holistic approach. “Different plastics are produced in different quantities, and their service life varies: Packaging will be reintegrated into the cycle after a period of, say, six months; but the lifespan of a building’s insulation may be about 30 years.” The Aachen team seeks to convert plastics into reusable raw materials using a combination of chemical, electrochemical, and microbial catalysis processes. They have already demonstrated that this can work for various types of plastic.

However, the researchers' idea goes beyond individual and isolated material cycles. They strive to 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 customized and made versatile so that they can also be fed into other value chains and material cycles. This will create the basis for a flexible, multidimensional circular economy.

RWTH Rector Professor Ulrich Rüdiger congratulated the catalaix team. “This is a great success. The transformation from linear value chains to a holistic, closed-loop economy is one of the tasks of the century. I am convinced that the WSS Research Center will make an important contribution to the establishment of a multidimensional circular economy and to social transformation.”

Jürgen Klankermayer and Regina Palkovits are supported in their endeavor by core team members Professor Lars Blank (Chair of Applied Microbiology), Professor Alexander Mitsos (Chair of Systems Process Engineering), and Professor Grit Walther (Chair of Operations Management). In order to do justice to the complexity of the task at hand, the catalaix team also comprises twelve other professors from RWTH and Forschungszentrum Jülich, so that the catalysis approach can be supplemented by a more systemic perspective.

For the Werner Siemens Foundation, which provides significant funding for long-term scientific projects, the WSS is the largest research project it has ever financed. “We wanted to launch a very special project to mark our anniversary and make a contribution to the sustainable use of our planet's resources,” said Dr. Hubert Keiber, Chairman of the WSS Board of Trustees. “We are convinced that we will succeed in this effort by supporting the catalaix project.”