Membrane Expert Matthias Wessling to Receive 2019 Leibniz Prize

Copyright: © Peter Winandy

RWTH professor Matthias Wessling, Chair of Process Engineering and member of the DWI Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials, is to receive the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize from the German Research Foundation. The prize, worth 2.5 million euros, is the most important research award in Germany. 


On December 6, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has announced the research grant recipients in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Program. They will each receive prize money in the amount of 2.5 million euros for their research.

“We are delighted that the achievements of this outstanding scientist have been recognized with this award. Matthias Wessling is considered to be one of the most productive and influential experts for membrane technology and polymer research,“ said RWTH rector Ulrich Rüdiger. In Aachen, explained Rüdiger, Wessling has been instrumental in more closely integrating the engineering sciences with the natural and medical sciences.

Matthias Wessling was nominated for the award by the president of the Leibniz Association, Professor Matthias Kleiner. Like the most important research award of the DFG, the association has been named after the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. “His groundbreaking work on membrane technology and polymer research, which have led to many practical applications, exemplifies the collaborative, transdisciplinary research conducted by the Leibniz Association,“ said Kleiner.

The membrane expert is Chair of Chemical Process Engineering at RWTH Aachen University. Together with the other four departments of the Aachener Verfahrenstechnik (AVT) consortium, he undertakes joint research on the next generation of resource-saving products and processes.

“We are delighted with this great success of our colleague and the recognition he now receives for his outstanding scientific achievements. His inquisitive spirit and his vision of truly interdisciplinary process engineering have strongly contributed to shaping both the AVT and international research endeavors in the field,” commented Professor Andreas Jupke, spokesperson for the AVT.

”This is a great success for DWI as one of the smaller institutions of the Leibniz Association, and it encourages us all to continue with our interdisciplinary research,” said DWI director Professor Martin Möller.

A Leading Expert in Membrane Technology and Polymer Research

According to the German Research Foundation, Wessling is one of the leading experts in the field of membrane technology and polymer research worldwide. In particular, the award is to recognize his groundbreaking work on the description, understanding, and synthesis of semi-permeable membranes, that is synthetic membranes which are selectively permeable.

Membranes are thin layers of material which are capable of separating molecules, for example. Thus they are used in a broad range of industrial processes, such as desalination, waste water and exhaust treatment processes, and they are important components of fuel cells and high-performance batteries.

The Leibniz Association emphasized Wessling’s major achievement of providing experimental evidence of the existence of hydrodynamic electro-osmotic instabilities at the ion-selective membrane-fluid interface. These instabilities have been mathematically predicted, but experimental proof was provided by a Dutch-Israeli research team led by Wessling.

In collaboration with Stanford University, with the help of comprehensive numerical simulations, it was possible to quantify further details of these instabilities, and the researchers are now able to induce them experimentally. The results of his fundamental investigations are being used in several industrial and medical applications, such as kidney dialysis.

Research at the Crossroads of the Sciences

Wessling undertakes successful and influential research at the crossroads of the sciences: drawing on his expertise in process engineering and membrane technology, he has built bridges to the material sciences and the fields that underpin them, such as polymer chemistry and physics.

In his endeavors, he integrates membrane technology with a biologically inspired “materials engineering.” The importance of this approach and the opportunities it provides result from the fundamental significance and the variety of separation and transport processes in biological systems. The utilization of such processes in technical systems not only requires mastery over material properties and hydrodynamic processes at different scales, but also the integration of biological and technological concepts and components.

Today, Matthias Wessling holds a worldwide leading position in this field, and he has provided important impetus to the work of his research community. His has published more than 420 scientific articles in international academic journals and has been editor of the Journal of Membrance Science for more than 10 years.

Wessling has held positions at Membrane Technology and Research Inc, Menlo Park, California, and Akzo Nobel; between 2000 and 2010, he was Chair of Membrane Science and Technology at the University of Twente. In 2010, Wessling was appointed Chair of Chemical Process Engineering as a Humboldt Professor. Furthermore, he joined the Scientific Board of DWI Leibniz Institute of Interactive Materials. In 2016, he received a prestigious ERC Advanced Grant, which he used to address the question of how chemical and geometrical membrane topologies influence the diffusive resistances at the membrane-fluid interface.

Since September 2018, Professor Wessling has been RWTH Vice-Rector for Research and Structure. In this role, he places particular emphasis on the strategic development of the University under Germany’s Excellence Strategy. Currently he is supervising the proposal process for the “University of Excellence” funding line of the national competition.