Photochemistry for environmental and climate protection
Junior professorship and junior research group for Dr Andrea Pannwitz

Ulm University

The research of the recently appointed junior professor Dr Andrea Pannwitz concerns several topics with relevance for environmental policy: hydrogen mobility, climate protection and sustainable energy storage. In her new junior research group, sponsored by the Vector Foundation, and in the Transregio Collaborative Research Centre CataLight, Pannwitz can combine her interests of chemistry and environmental protection.

Dr Andrea Pannwitz had two good reasons for moving to Ulm University. At the end of 2019, she was successful in the Vector Foundation’s call for proposals for the junior research group “MINT for the Environment”, meaning she can now set up her own research group at Ulm University. The focus of her new group “Decentralised and direct solar energy conversion using nanomembranes” concerns creating fuel from solar energy. In addition, the 31-year-old researcher was also appointed to a junior professorship at the Institut für Anorganische Chemie I in the summer. Over the next six years, Pannwitz will also be participating in the Transregio Collaborative Research Centre TRR 234 CataLight, which deals with artificial photosynthesis.

“Ulm University is the best choice for me as a chemist”, says Dr Andrea Pannwitz. She explicitly applied at the Baden-Württemberg Vector Foundation for a junior research group at her desired location. The Institute of Inorganic Chemistry I is strong in the areas of photochemistry, material characterisation and catalysis. “There are many connecting factors between me and my colleagues”, says Pannwitz, who previously performed postdoc research in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. The chemist will receive a million euros for four years from the Vector Foundation for her junior research group. Equipped with three PhD and postdoc positions, Andrea Pannwitz hopes to contribute to the efficient conversion of solar energy into chemical substances such as hydrogen or methanol. Her group combines approaches from biology, chemistry and engineering.

Inspired by nature

In concrete terms, the researchers aim to develop molecular systems, inspired by nature, that enable solar-powered electron transfer within a membrane. In a second step, this membrane will be integrated into a photo reactor, creating two separate reaction chambers. “In each of the two cell halves, coupled chemical reactions such as hydrogen production and CO2 reduction can take place. The conditions in the two reaction chambers can be controlled and optimised independently of each other”, explains Andrea Pannwitz. Aiming to develop new systems such as these for solar fuel production and other applications, Pannwitz combines classical lab experiments with elaborate computer simulations. Hydrogen mobility presents one potential field of application. Someday, for example, a solar-powered photo reactor could serve as a mobile hydrogen filling station. This idea could be used for removing CO2 from the atmosphere as well. The “waste product” of the chemical reaction is fresh oxygen.

As a new junior professor at the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry I, Dr Andrea Pannwitz will be involved in research and teaching. Her first lecture in the master’s degree programme in chemistry will be starting in November as an online class. From a scientific perspective, Pannwitz’s concentration fits in perfectly with the SFB/TRR CataLight project, which Ulm University and Jena University established about two years ago with other partners. In this joint project, which is receiving around 10 million euros in funding, researchers are using light, molecular catalyst systems and functional polymers to produce chemical substances in which the energy from light is stored. Natural photosynthesis is the model for this objective. The Collaborative Research Centre aims to develop new materials for sustainable energy conversion including artificial chloroplasts for solar hydrogen production.

When Andrea Pannwitz began work in her new position in Ulm at the beginning of the summer semester, the University was closed due to the corona pandemic. Thus, her new junior research group had to be set up from home. Now, however, she has full use of the labs and offices on campus. She appears to be integrated in the Collaborative Research Centre with respect to both science and athletics. In late September, the amateur jogger will be participating in the half marathon for the team CataLight in the virtual Einstein Runs.

About Andrea Pannwitz:
Dr Andrea Pannwitz (born 1989) comes from Jena and studied chemistry at the University of Göttingen. She was already addressing research issues in photochemistry while she was pursuing her PhD in Basel.  Following a period of postdoc research at Leiden University in the Netherlands, she applied for a junior research group, funded by the Vector Foundation, and also for a junior professorship at Ulm University. She was successful with both applications. Andrea Pannwitz has been conducting research in Ulm since the beginning of the summer semester. She only recently started with her junior professorship. In addition to athletic activities such as jogging and climbing, she also includes beer brewing as a hobby on her CV.

Media contact: Annika Bingmann

Ulm junior professor Andrea Pannwitz
Ulm junior professor Andrea Pannwitz receives a million euros from the Vector Foundation to set up her own junior research group (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt / Uni Ulm)
Junior research group supervisor Pannwitz
Junior research group supervisor Pannwitz performs research on chemical conversion of solar energy at the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry I (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt / Uni Ulm)
Catalysis set-up
Catalysis set-up from the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry I for converting light energy into chemical energy (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt / Uni Ulm)