GRETA PATZKE The re­searcher wants to con­clu­sively solve the global en­ergy prob­lem.

Bulletin - - Contents - By Mathias Plüss (text) and Hen­rik Franklin (il­lus­tra­tion)

Pro­fes­sor Patzke, your re­search is seek­ing to solve the world’s en­ergy prob­lem. Will this re­quire sig­nif­i­cant re­stric­tions on our life­style?

No. I want us to be able to main­tain the cur­rent level of civ­i­liza­tion, but with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing the earth’s ecosys­tems and the eco­log­i­cal bal­ance. My goal is to de­velop a tech­nol­ogy that will en­able us to pro­duce truly clean en­ergy from sus­tain­able sources.

How do you pro­pose to achieve that?

With the help of ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis, us­ing sun­light to pro­duce hy­dro­gen through the process of wa­ter split­ting. Fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing, we are look­ing for a magic pow­der that can be sprin­kled onto wa­ter – so that when the wa­ter is ex­posed to the sun, it pro­duces hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen.

Pho­to­syn­the­sis makes it pos­si­ble for plants to use so­lar en­ergy. Are you try­ing to im­i­tate a process that has ex­isted in na­ture for mil­lions of years?

You could put it that way. But you can’t sim­ply take a nat­u­ral process and trans­plant it into the lab­o­ra­tory. That would be like re­mov­ing a per­son’s eye and im­plant­ing it into a ro­bot in the hope that the ro­bot would then be able to see. It doesn’t work that way. We are try­ing to de­velop a tech­nol­ogy that is sim­ple, ro­bust and in­ex­pen­sive, as well as more ef­fi­cient than nat­u­ral pho­to­syn­the­sis.

Ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis is con­sid­ered one of the most dif­fi­cult chal­lenges in chem­istry. Why?

Wa­ter is a very sta­ble com­pound, and that’s a good thing. Just imag­ine go­ing to the beach on va­ca­tion, and hav­ing the wa­ter in the ocean split when the sun shines on it. That would be ter­ri­ble. For split­ting to take place, you need a cat­a­lyst, and that’s what we’re look­ing for. Ac­tu­ally, we need two – one for oxy­gen and one for hy­dro­gen. My re­search fo­cuses on oxy­gen catal­y­sis. That’s the more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge.

How does such a cat­a­lyst func­tion?

We have sev­eral dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. For the most part we’re work­ing with cobalt. Last sum­mer we pub­lished a pa­per about a cobalt com­plex, a unique mol­e­cule that ap­pears to com­bine all of the de­sired char­ac­ter­is­tics. Now we want to study it fur­ther. I should point out that the ba­sic cri­te­ria for the cat­alytic process are not yet fully un­der­stood. Some­times it seems as if we’re build­ing 100 cars, and two of them are of ex­cel­lent qual­ity, 48 aren’t so good, and 50 are junk – and we don’t know why.

So it takes luck?

At any rate, there is al­ways an el­e­ment of chance. The pro­cesses are so com­plex that it’s im­pos­si­ble to mon­i­tor all of the vari­ables at the same time.

Do I un­der­stand you cor­rectly that it will be not just years but decades be­fore it will ac­tu­ally be pos­si­ble to use ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis?

If we find a good cat­a­lyst, it could go quickly. If not, it may take a while.

Ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis will open up enor­mous busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties – why aren’t com­pa­nies con­duct­ing re­search in this area?

I’m sure the in­dus­trial sec­tor will jump in when it sees a ma­jor break­through. Right now, how­ever, we’re still in the realm of ba­sic re­search.

If we were al­ready at the point where your method could be used to pro­duce hy­dro­gen in a clean and eco­nom­i­cal man­ner, what would we do with it?

With a fuel cell, hy­dro­gen can be used to pro­duce elec­tric­ity. Or it can be used to pro­duce ar­ti­fi­cial fu­els, such as syn­thetic gaso­line. The process is called Fis­cher-trop­sch Syn­the­sis, and it was al­ready used dur­ing World War II.

We al­ready have pho­to­voltaic cells for so­lar en­ergy. So why do we need ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis?

Pho­to­voltaics is a so­phis­ti­cated, fas­ci­nat­ing tech­nol­ogy, but it has a sig­nif­i­cant draw­back: It pro­duces elec­tric­ity – in or­der to store the en­ergy, you need a grid.

And that’s not the case with ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis?

No, with ar­ti­fi­cial pho­to­syn­the­sis, you have the hy­dro­gen to work with. This clean tech­nol­ogy will def­i­nitely have a valu­able role to play in places that lack a power grid. In gen­eral, more­over, we should avoid re­ly­ing on a sin­gle tech­nol­ogy, as we have done with oil and gas.

How did you end up con­duct­ing re­search in this area?

I started from the ground up, learn­ing the ba­sics of nanopar­ti­cles and chem­i­cal clus­ters. It was only when I was re­ally up to speed that I said to my­self: I want to give back to so­ci­ety. That meant work­ing on fu­ture-rel­e­vant top­ics with prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions. It wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out a solid foun­da­tion of knowl­edge.

What are the cre­ative as­pects of your work as a sci­en­tist?

In my day-to-day life, when I’m spend­ing 10 or 11 hours a day at the uni­ver­sity, there tends to be lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for cre­ativ­ity. I’m work­ing with col­leagues and staff and help­ing to man­age the in­sti­tute, writ­ing pub­li­ca­tions and grant ap­pli­ca­tions, and so on. Cre­ativ­ity comes in the most un­likely sit­u­a­tions – in the shower, at the gym or while I’m walk­ing through the beau­ti­ful Irchel cam­pus in north­ern Zurich. That’s when I’ll sud­denly come up with an idea.

Would you com­pare your work to that of an artist?

Yes, in the sense that cre­ativ­ity doesn’t hap­pen in a vac­uum, in my ex­pe­ri­ence. I doubt that artists sim­ply walk up to the can­vas and start paint­ing. In­stead, they make 499 sketches, and per­haps, when they reach the 500th, they’ll say, that’s it! It’s sim­i­lar in science. Cre­ativ­ity comes from prac­tice.

In 2017 you re­ceived the Credit Suisse Award for Best Teach­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of Zurich. What does this award mean to you?

It means a great deal, and I’m in­cred­i­bly grate­ful. It rec­og­nizes the fact that I’m able to get young sci­en­tists ex­cited about chem­istry.

Greta Patzke, 43, stud­ied chem­istry in Hanover, Ger­many, and earned a PHD at the Swiss Fed­eral In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Zurich. She has worked at the Depart­ment of Chem­istry at the Uni­ver­sity of Zurich since 2007, and has been a full pro­fes­sor since 2016. In 2017 she re­ceived the Credit Suisse Award for Best Teach­ing.

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