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Research in Three-Part Harmony

Whether at the heart of the German capital, on the French bank of the Rhine or on the sun baked hills of Sicily, European scientists are collaborating as a single team on cutting-edge catalysis chemistry. They are creating a world renowned and uniquely European laboratory in the process: ELCASS.

Scientists at the European Laboratory for Catalysis and Surface Science (ELCASS) 1 have to cover some pretty large distances to study some very tiny objects. The lab, which was mainly created to study applications for nanotechnology in catalysis, is a three-country operation, with researchers based in Germany, Italy, and France.


© J. Chatin/CNRS Photothèque

At LMPSC, scientists discuss results next to the X-ray spectrometer.

François Garin is head of the LMPSC 2, the French contribution to the effort, which is a joint unit between the CNRS and the Université Louis Pasteur (ULP) in Strasbourg. He explains that the tripartite lab was founded in 2001. “The core subject was nano-structured catalysts and their surface properties, which was an emerging field at the time. Since then, we’ve added new research areas,” says Garin. Catalysis research is inherently multidisciplinary, especially when the focus is on industrial applications, as with ELCASS. Catalysts, which are materials designed to induce sustainable and clean chemical reactions, have a wide range of uses, not least in automobiles, where they are used to reduce pollutants.
The new fields of research that ELCASS has branched into include solid superacids (which have applications as hydrocarbon catalysts), biomass catalysis, and the use of carbon dioxide as a raw material to produce hydrocarbon fuels (which should diminish greenhouse effects). “Promising research is being conducted on variations of the Fischer Tropsch process, whereby carbon monoxide or dioxide and hydrogen are–with the aid of a catalyst–converted into synthetic hydrocarbons,” explains Garin.
These subjects are well suited to the three-pronged approach. Garin’s lab performs the initial synthesis of a given compound. The second phase–characterizing the compounds–takes place at Berlin’s Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society, the prestigious research base of Gerhard Ertl, 2007 Nobel laureate in chemistry. Finally, all testing is done at the University of Messina in Italy, or at LMPSC in Strasbourg.
ELCASS was a forebear to the European Network of Excellence IDECAT 3. “Unfortunately, the initial funding of ELCASS was only intended to last until the end of 2009,” regrets Garin. Dr Marc J. Ledoux, Garin’s predecessor, is proud of what ELCASS has become. The lab recently recruited a leading Russian chemist, who chose the European lab over offers from many other countries. “That’s an enormous success for ELCASS,” adds Ledoux.
The three labs are eager to continue their formal collaboration beyond the end of next year to build an even more integrated laboratory. “We have now built a single team mentality; we act as one team, not three,” comments Ledoux.
Frequent in-person meetings and personnel exchanges are also effective at strengthening the collaboration: students and post-docs from the labs spend time at the partner institutions, learning each others’ techniques and making personal connections. A former post-doctoral fellow from Berlin recently joined CNRS in the Strasbourg lab as a full researcher, encouraged by Garin, whom he had met at an ELCASS meeting. Senior researchers from all three institutions have been guest professors at their partners’ universities. ELCASS labs even share PhD students. Giuseppe Gulino defended his PhD in 2004 in front of both the University of Messina and the ULP in Strasbourg. Carine Chan Taw spent the first year of her doctorate at the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, the second in Strasbourg, and has now returned to Berlin. Chan Taw, who will receive her doctorate from both the ULP and the Technical University of Berlin, is thrilled by the advantages that studying in multiple labs has given her. “It’s a good opportunity –you can select the best of each lab,” she says. “This is one of ELCASS’s greatest strengths,” says Garin. The three labs all have different scientific aptitudes, of course, but it goes beyond that. “These researchers come with very different scientific backgrounds. It’s not as monolithic as what emerges from researchers who may have all taken the same courses,” he adds. “There are only advantages to this. It forces you to open your mind.”

Mark Reynolds

Notes :

1. ELCASS is composed of: the Fritz Haber Institut der Max Planck Gesellschaft (AC Department, Berlin); the Department of Industrial Chemistry and Engineering of Materials (University of Messina, Italy) and the Laboratoire des Matériaux, Surfaces et Procédés pour la Catalyse (LMSPC, Strasbourg),
2. Laboratoire des Matériaux, Surfaces et Procédés pour la Catalyse (CNRS / Université de Strasbourg).
3. IDECAT: Integrated Design of Catalytic Nanomaterials for a Sustainable Production.

Contacts :

LMPSC, Strasbourg :
François Garin
Marc J. Ledoux


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