Arne Thomas, head of the Functional Materials group at Technische Universität Berlin, shares his groundbreaking work on developing organic photocatalysts for sustainable energy conversions. Learn how his team is harnessing the power of sunlight to transform abundant resources into useful chemicals, thereby driving a shift towards decentralised and environmentally friendly energy production. Discover the potential of their research to revolutionise industries, reduce waste, and mitigate the impact of climate change.
Which wall does your research break?
We are working on material concepts for sustainable energy conversions. Of particular interest is the conversion of the energy of sunlight into useful and storable chemicals. For this purpose, we use novel photocatalysts whose properties we can adjust specifically for the respective application. Many of these materials currently consist of rare and precious elements, so we have made it our mission to explore organic photocatalysts that are made up of abundant elements. In recent years, we have learned how to assemble different organic molecules in such a way that materials with defined properties can be produced. In addition, these materials have astonishingly high surface areas of 1000 m2/g and more, so that the surface of a football field can be held in one hand, which is of great interest for catalytic applications where chemical processes are accelerated by contact with surface atoms. Finally, the functionality of the materials can be adjusted so that they can absorb a large part of the visible sunlight and thus use its energy to convert chemical substances. Of particular interest are, for example, the use of sunlight to produce hydrogen from water, the conversion of CO2 into useful raw materials and chemicals, and a number of other chemical processes that can previously only be carried out with rare metals as catalysts. Our goal is therefore to convert the energy of sunlight into storable and transportable forms of energy. To this end, we would like to achieve industrial processes, which currently still have to be carried out with high energy consumption and high waste generation and CO2 emissions, using sunlight in an energy- and resource-saving manner, following the example of nature.
What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?
One inspiration is certainly nature, which can convert sunlight, water and CO2 into carbohydrates in the course of photosynthesis. Another inspiration is the intense colors that our organic materials exhibit, which can be changed in a targeted manner depending on which functional groups are connected to each other. This showed us that it should be possible to absorb large areas of sunlight and possibly convert it into other forms of energy. Ultimately, our motivation is the finite nature of fossil resources and man-made climate change, which makes it necessary to turn away from previous material and economic cycles.
In what ways does society benefit from your research?
There is no question that the way we create the products of our daily lives needs to be fundamentally changed. So far, fossil resources (oil, natural gas, coal) have been the basis of almost all man-made products. At the same time, although a number of renewable sources of energy are now available, this energy can only be stored for a limited time. The direct conversion of sunlight into chemical products and energy sources would remedy this situation. This would enable us to produce much-needed products, from fuels to drugs, from dyes to detergents and plastics, and many more, ultimately from raw materials such as water and CO2, thus contributing to a sustainable future.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?
We envision a future in which cities, communities and perhaps even every household can produce storable energy and important products of daily life in a decentralized manner and with the help of sunlight. This would lead to independence from critical raw materials and would also greatly shorten transport routes. Many energy and waste-intensive industrial processes could thus be replaced by small, environmentally friendly units.