Michael Schütze on the Future of DECHEMA's Research

Michael Schütze on the Future of DECHEMA's Research

Author: Vera Köster/Photo: DECHEMA Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie e. V. (Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology)

The monolith DECHEMA Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie e. V. (Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology) was recently split into three organizations.

  • In the center, the nonprofit DECHEMA society provides all services, including conferences and decision papers, in the same way, quality, and amount as before.
  • The exhibition activities, like the ACHEMA, are now handled by a limited liability company (GmbH).
  • The Research Institute became an independent nonprofit foundation (Stiftung bürgerlichen Rechts).

Professor Michael Schütze, Director of the DECHEMA Research Institute, talks to Dr. Vera Köster for ChemViews magazine about what the reorganization means for the Research Institute, their co-operation with industry and academia, future trends of the chemical industry and the best parts of his job.

The DECHEMA Research Institute, formerly the Karl-Winnacker-Institute of DECHEMA, became an independent nonprofit foundation. What does this mean for your institute?

First of all we gain more visibility. So far, we have been a department of DECHEMA, you saw DECHEMA and somewhere inside there was the institute. Now you have the DECHEMA society and the institute which stands alone and can act more freely, but still is closely related to DECHEMA.

In February we changed the name from Karl-Winnacker-Institute of DECHEMA to DECHEMA Research Institute – Research For Sustainable Technologies.

In connection to this there are also some changes in the institute’s structure. In addition to our existing working groups Electrochemistry, Technical Chemistry, Corrosion, High Temperature Materials, and Biotechnology, where the traditional key competences of DECHEMA are organized, we added so called research clusters. They are key topics important for the future of an industrial society and are embedded into societal and political needs of the future industrial society. Here different working groups work interdisciplinarily and internationally together with research partners.

Last but not least, as a department of DECHEMA which was and is a non-profit organization we had some limits from the legal point of view on the direct interaction between us and industry. Now as a foundation, for us it is, e.g., easier in regards to exploitation of patents or bilateral confidential collaborations with industry. Our cooperation with industry will be increased further. Via our benefactors we will have a much closer link to industrial companies of different sectors.

How close will your connection to the DECHEMA be?

The Karl-Winnacker-Institute of DECHEMA was, as a department of DECHEMA, an intrinsic part of DECHEMA’s society work. Now due to the new structure, the DECHEMA Research Institute is an independent research institute, but still closely associated with DECHEMA, as we have the same general goals and outlines for our work as DECHEMA has.

That means that we work on the same topics, we still have the same contacts, we still are members of the same research committees and by this part of the same community. And I think this is a large benefit for the research of this institute.

How large is the institute? How many projects can you take?

People-wise it is somewhere between 70 and 80 scientists, graduate students, and technical staff, depending on the number of projects we have. More than half of the people are on contracts that are limited to two or three years, depending on the funding situation.

The number of projects we have at the moment is something like 50 long-term projects which run for two to three years. These are publicly funded. In addition we have about a similar number of bilateral projects with industry. These usually run between half a year and one year and most of the time they are on confidential research oriented along the lines of their industrial interests.

How do you decide which projects to take over?

It is pretty much determined by the current national and European research funding programs that are oriented along the societal needs and the political needs and by our competences.

And how closely are you connected with other institutes or universities?

Each head of our working groups usually is expected to be a member of the teaching board of a German university. This means at some point they need the habilitation degree to become a Professor. At the moment we have three colleagues at the institute with such teaching commitments and there will be another one taking up these responsibilities soon.

And on the other hand, of course, we also have a number of projects where we work together with universities. This is mainly fundamental research. For instance, there is one large research activity (Schwerpunktprogramm) by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) at the moment which is called HAUT, where we have several projects together with universities. In DFG funded projects, I would say in about 50 % of cases we have joint projects together with universities.

So we have strong connections on the research and on the teaching side.

Do you see yourself as kind of a link between industry and academia?

I think that’s definitely the idea of our institute. We regard ourselves as a very active link between the two areas, because in the research committees of our projects we usually have both parties – the universities or the large research centers like Jülich or Karlsruhe and at the same time the colleagues from industry. We are – and I think this is something our colleagues rate very highly – a good forum for meeting each other regularly in the frame of these projects. And during coffee or lunch breaks there are a lot of opportunities for these colleagues to discuss other topics, not only the work of the project.

How important are industrial applications for your research projects?

We cover the whole span from fundamental research, which is usually funded by DFG, to applied research, which is the bilateral cooperation between the industry and ourselves. As a rule, even on the very fundamental side, at the far end there must be some type of industrial application which also helps to get funding.

How do you attract young people to your institute?

Hopefully we give good lectures when teaching and by that make young people interested in what we are doing.

And we meet these young people at conferences. In our conference presentations and at poster exhibitions they see what the spectrum of research is at our institute. Fairly often, we don’t have to advertise a position, but can select from the number of spontaneous applications we already have. I think this is pretty much due to the positive reputation of our research among the group of young people.

Also through our young co-workers we are connected to the young community. For example, we recruited a number of people from France by having a French co-worker who put information about our research on some French internet forum and suddenly we were flooded with applications from France.

So your research team is very international?

It is indeed. We have young researchers from all over Europe, e.g., from France, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Austria but also from Asia, Australia and Africa. Another young researcher from the US just recently left us to work in industry.

Through the work at our institute the young researchers are also trained for the work in international industries, e.g., by project collaboration, research visits to foreign countries, and presentation of their results in talks at international conferences. By this they become part of an attractive recruiting potential for industry. For us this can unfortunately mean that we lose a skilled co-worker in one or the other case. On the other hand this expands our network within industry, so we have a good network of alumni.

Where do you see the field of industrial chemistry heading?

Industrial chemistry is such a wide field and I should not regard myself as competent to be a prophet for the whole field of industrial chemistry.

One of the general goals, and this is also why we choose Research For Sustainable Technologies as the subtitle of our name, is to move away from the more hazardous type of chemistry. Also, for instance, energy is an area where chemistry can give a significant input to future developments.

Our research clusters as described before definitely will be part of future technical chemistry or chemical technology research and development. An example of one of these cluster topics that currently also determines part of the research strategies of the Fraunhofer Society and funding programs of the BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) and others is the recovery of metal resources from domestic industrial waste can be mentioned. They especially focus on the recovery of precious metals and other precursors for industrial application which currently have to be imported at a high price level, and sometimes only from a single foreign country. There is a discussion that in Germany we might have enough resources to replace all the imports. But they have to be retrieved from the existing industrial waste that we have.

What is for you most fascinating about your job?

… the interesting mixture of being a scientist and being a manager.

I think the most fascinating aspect, especially at my age, is that you can work together with young, ambitious, and enthusiastic people. Another fascinating part is the internationality of our work. I am actually just about to hop on a plane to the US for a large conference and several committee meetings including one of a United Nations accredited association. So this is another nice part of the job – to fly around the world, meet different people, different cultures, and get different input for our research. Also on a personal level this is all part of the fascination of this job.

Thank you very much Profesor Schütze for the interview.

Michael Schütze
Michael Schütze
studied materials sciences at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, from 1972 to 1978. He then joined the Karl-Winnacker-Institute of DECHEMA as a research associate. He received his doctorate in engineering sciences from the Technical University of Aachen (RWTH), Germany, and completed his Habilitation in 1991, becoming a member of the teaching staff of the RWTH. In 1998 he was appointed to a professorship there.
In 1996, Michael Schütze was appointed director of the Karl-Winnacker-Institute, which was renamed to DECHEMA Research Institute – Research For Sustainable Technologies in February.

His research activities focus on high temperature corrosion protection. Recently he has developed the concept of minimal invasive corrosion protection which offers completely new approaches to protect materials at high temperatures.

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