Chemist at Ulm University awarded ERC Consolidator Grant
Bespoke material design for next-generation technologies

Ulm University

Custom-designed materials could significantly accelerate the development of high-performance batteries, high-precision sensors or innovative information technologies. Until now, however, material design that is tailor-made from the atomic level up was considered a dream of the future. Professor Carsten Streb wants to change this with his new project SupraVox: the chemist plans to investigate the polymerisation process of metal oxides and ultimately gain control over the structure and reactivity of such materials. In support of this endeavour, the scientist, who conducts research at Ulm University's Institute of Inorganic Chemistry I and as Principal Investigator at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm (HIU), has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant of approximately 2 million euros. With this funding instrument, the European Research Council (ERC) enables outstanding researchers to realise ground-breaking concepts over a period of five years, thus strengthening the European research landscape.

The SupraVox project tackles one of the major challenges in materials chemistry: the researchers led by Professor Carsten Streb want to make controlled synthesis of metal oxides and thus customised material design a reality – from the atomic level to nano- and micro-structures. Such tailor-made materials would be a milestone on the way to efficient energy technologies, climate-friendly mobility and industrial catalysis. 'In materials science, computer simulations have made great strides: they advance the understanding of chemical processes and replace many laboratory experiments. Metal oxide synthesis, however, is still a process of trial and error. We want to fundamentally change this with the SupraVox project and establish controllable metal oxide polymerisation,' explains Streb. Hitherto, the researchers did not have a deep enough understanding of polymerisation processes and control over the targeted linking of individual building blocks to form long molecular chains.

Building blocks for custom-fit materials

Molecular metal oxides, so-called polyoxometalates (POMs), are the ideal building blocks for such a customisable class of materials. The structure and reactivity of these monomers can be changed at the molecular level. Carsten Streb's group has been performing pioneering work on polyoxometalates for many years. The researchers have developed novel, self-healing anti-corrosion coatings (POM-IL), multifunctional composites for water treatment as well as highly active catalysts for solar-driven hydrogen production. Nevertheless, gaps in understanding, for example when it comes to the transition from separate POM molecules to polymeric metal oxides, are stymieing a truly controlled material design.

The end of trial-and-error syntheses

The focus of the SupraVox research project lies on vanadium-based POMs (V-POMs): with the help of these model monomers, the researchers want to understand and influence the chemical details of polymerisation and achieve the precisely-targeted growth of V-POM chains. The new chemical and electronic properties that will become available will benefit a wide range of high technologies.
Until then, numerous questions in the realms of molecular and solid-state chemistry need to be answered: What are the supramolecular mechanisms that regulate polymerisation? How do polymer chains interact with their environment? And what are the interrelations between structure, electronic properties and reactivity of V-POM polymers? Research on the boundary surface of vanadium oxide polymers that are placed on top of electrodes bridges the gap between science and practical applications. With the help of high-resolution electron microscopy, among other things, the researchers want to gain further insights that can be utilised in battery and catalyst design. Overall, SupraVox will use V-POMs to demonstrate polymerisation concepts that can be transferred to other metal oxides. The ultimate goal is to replace trial-and-error syntheses with predictable material design.

The research environment at Ulm University and the neighbouring Helmholtz Institute Ulm, which specialises in battery research, is ideal. Both institutions are renowned world leaders in the field of characterising functional nanomaterials and have the most advanced analytical systems at their disposal – from the SALVE supermicroscope to electrochemistry laboratories to and simulations, possibly with the aid of supercomputer JUSTUS 2.
'SupraVox will enable us to access an entirely new class of materials with a wide range of applications. I am convinced that we are paving the way for the development of important next-generation technologies such as sustainable energy storage and quantum electronics,' Professor Carsten Streb sums up.

About the ERC Consolidator Grant
ERC Consolidator Grants are aimed at excellent researchers in the consolidation phase. The funding primarily serves to support them in expanding their independent research group and increasing their international visibility. Typically, promising researchers from all disciplines apply seven to twelve years after their doctorate. An international jury, advised by external experts, decides on the quality of the submitted applications. For their projects, the selected researchers receive up to 2 million euros for five years (plus a start-up budged in some cases). 2506 applications were submitted in 2020. Of these, 327 researchers from 23 European countries were selected for an ERC Consolidator Grant. Sole criterion is the scientific excellence of the researchers track record and their proposed project. The total funding volume amounts to 655 million euros.

Media contact: Annika Bingmann

Prof. Carsten Streb
Prof. Carsten Streb strives to revolutionise material design with the help of his ERC Consolidator Grant (poto: Eberhardt/Ulm University