Successes in energy technology research

Two Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes of the German Research Foundation for TU Darmstadt


Two of this year's Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prizes of the German Research Foundation (DFG) go to TU Darmstadt – to junior professor Ulrike Kramm (40) and assistant professor Michael Saliba (36). Kramm, who has been a junior professor at TU Darmstadt since March 2015, develops non-precious metal catalysts for energy applications such as fuel cells. The catalysts are cheap in production as they do not require expensive and scarce precious metals. Since April 2019, Saliba has been teaching and researching at TU Darmstadt in the field of perovskite-based solar cell development, a cost-effective and easy-to-manufacture alternative to established technologies such as classic silicon technology. The prizes are endowed with 20,000 euros each.

“I am delighted that we are honouring two impressive individuals who have set their sights on important challenges for society and future solutions for a sustainable economy”, said TU President Professor Tanja Brühl. “TU Darmstadt is proud to have received the most important prize for the promotion of young scientists in Germany twice this year”, emphasised TU Vice President for Research and Early Careers, Professor Barbara Albert.

junior professor Ulrike Kramm
junior professor Ulrike Kramm

Kramm's research

Low temperature fuel cells are essential for a CO2-free transportation sector. One problem that prevents large-scale commercialisation is the price of platinum, which is used as a catalyst in fuel cells. Ulrike Kramm, junior professor at the Departments of Chemistry as well as Materials and Earth Sciences at TU Darmstadt, is working on eliminating expensive and scarce precious metals as much as possible.

In the search for a substitute of precious metals, Kramm is guided by a model from nature: the blood pigment haemoglobin. At its centre an iron atom is surrounded by four nitrogen atoms. Unlike haemoglobin, in which the molecular iron-nitrogen unit is integrated into an organic molecule, in Kramm`s so called FE-N-C catalysts, the molecular centres are integrated into pure carbon in the form of graphene layers. Depending on the reaction to be catalysed, the iron atom can also be replaced by other transition metals such as cobalt, copper or manganese. The required metal amount for catalysis is greatly reduced by the integration of the metals into the molecular centre. Kramm and her team at TU Darmstadt are working on three main areas: production and stabilisation of non-precious metal catalysts, elucidation of the structure and the catalysis mechanisms and transfer of the concepts to other reactions. “It's often the case in research that you solve one problem and then many new research questions arise”, says Kramm, who always tries to keep the big picture in mind.

Several awards already

Ulrike Kramm has already received several awards: In 2018, she was awarded the Prize of the Dr. Hans Messer Foundation worth 50,000 euros, the highest endowed prize of TU Darmstadt for outstanding achievements by early career researchers. Last year she was awarded the Curious Mind Award Energy and Mobility by Manager Magazin and the company Merck KGaA. Since 2017, she also leads a young researcher group funded by the Federal Ministry of Research. Just recently, a master thesis of Kramm's working group was awarded a special by the House of Energy: Carolin Prössl received the award at the Darmstadt Energy Conference for her thesis “Stabilisation of Fe-N-C catalysts for the Application in Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEM-FC)”.

Short biography Kramm

Kramm studied Applied Physics at the University of Applied Sciences Zwickau with a focus on environmental science and then worked on the optimisation of new fuel cell catalysts in a cooperation between the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and Toyota. In her doctoral thesis at the HZB, which she completed in 2009, Kramm investigated the structure of Fe-N-C catalysts. During her postdoctoral stays in a research group at INRS-EMT in Varennes, Canada, at the HZB and at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, she continued to focus on structure elucidation and also developed a purification treatment that increases catalyst performance.

assistant professor Michael Saliba
assistant professor Michael Saliba

Saliba's Research

The materials scientist Michael Saliba is one of the most influential researchers internationally in the field of perovskites and has played a decisive role in the development of material structures for photovoltaics. Over the past ten years, perovskites have emerged as promising materials for solar cells. They consist of low-cost components and can be processed on an industrial scale with inexpensive processes, comparable to those used in newspaper printing.

Perovskite-based solar cells have achieved degrees of efficiency comparable to established commercial technologies that have taken decades to optimise. Perovskite solar cells are therefore regarded as particularly promising candidates for sustainable energy production with a low carbon footprint.

Established technologies can withstand outdoor weather conditions for many decades without significant deterioration. Now that perovskite solar cells are approaching their theoretical performance maximum, the central question of long-term stability over several decades remains unanswered. Perovskite research is still relatively young and it has therefore not yet been possible to establish binding protocols for stability measurements. However, enabling the perovskite technology to be brought to market in the near future requires the discovery of accelerated ageing parameters, so that long-term degradation can be extrapolated with significantly shorter ageing under laboratory conditions.

Short biography Saliba

Michael Saliba heads the Division of Materials of Electrical Engineering at TU Darmstadt and, at the same time, a Helmholtz Young Investigator group at Forschungszentrum Jülich. Saliba studied physics (Diplom) and mathematics (Vordiplom) at the University of Stuttgart. He wrote his diploma thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. He has been working with perovskites since his doctoral thesis, which he completed at Oxford University in 2014. As a Marie Curie Fellow, he conducted research at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) from 2015 to 2017 in the group of Professor Michael Grätzel. He then became a group leader at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Several awards

Saliba has already received several awards: In 2016, the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers named him Young Scientist of the Year, and in 2017, the MIT Technology Review placed him on the international list of the Top 35 Innovators under 35. The magazine “Times Higher Education” ranks him among the three most influential scientists in perovskite research worldwide. According to Thomson Reuters, he has been a “Highly Cited Researcher” since 2018. Saliba refers to 90 scientific publications and is involved in four patents. He is also a member of the Junge Akademie and the Global Young Academy.