What’s the science at MPI CEC

Mission statement

Fundamental science at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion creates a comprehensive understanding of the active sites of catalysts that are essential for the interconversion of energy and chemical bonds. The research activities comprise mechanistic investigations, rational design, controlled preparation, and synthetic application of catalysts and catalytic systems. We take an integrated scientific approach across the traditional catalysis disciplines based on biological systems, molecules, and solid interfaces.

In particular, we study catalytic systems for the activation and chemical transformations of small molecules such as CO2, CO, H2O, H2, and N2, that are essential components of future “de-fossilized” energy systems. We focus on the chemical storage and utilization of renewable electricity in applications including sustainable fuels for mobility and indispensable products of the chemical industry.

Research focus

As mentioned before, the institute defines its mission as gaining a thorough understanding of the generation and function of active sites. A limited set of chemical transformations are studied in this endeavor that all relate to the needs of future "de-fossilized" energy systems. The goal is to achieve a universal understanding across the various fields of catalysis - namely molecular, biological and interfacial. The key unifying chemical reactions have been chosen in order to delineate a system of sustainable processes required for the energy transformation. Storage and transportation of renewable electricity (hydrogen and its transport forms), fuels for mobility and materials from chemical industry transformations are target areas.

Reactions of common interest are the generation of hydrogen (electrocatalysis, dehydrogenations), the conversion into transport forms of ammonia and methanol and a range of hydrogenation reactions as applications for green hydrogen. Transformations of carbon dioxide and biomass are studied as well as novel concepts of streamlining multistep transformation with the concept of saving energy and resources. The research is organized according to two selected key challenges. The first is to define the structure of catalytic active sites during operating conditions, including their dynamical transformations and interactions with their environment. The second is to identify a strategy allowing the transition from noble metals to non-noble metals as active site components.

A key element in the profile of the institute is the desire to unite strong competence in molecular and interfacial catalysts under one roof. The practical cooperation between these classically fragmented branches of science is considered a critical element in the overall mission. It is a working hypothesis in the MPI CEC that working catalysts consist of active sites coming about from dynamical fluctuations of an active material. This applies to molecules with exchanging ligands, as well as to termination layers of solids undergoing frustrated phase transitions inhibited by the lack of nucleation of an ordered stable phase.

Analysis of the state-of-the-art reveals that these challenges require dedicated and tailored methodical developments. The institute is determined to develop methods in synthetic chemistry and functional analysis to achieve the goals elucidated above. We will, however, not invert the approach by developing methods and search for applications. The institute performs thus problem-oriented research. The problems tackled are in the science domain. The institute does not intend to develop or implement technological solutions per se. It rather relies on external collaborations to engage in fruitful dialogue with the technology sphere. This enables critical questions to be identified as motivation for further research, as well as for the verification of scientific solutions and insights based on a real-world technological environment.