Scientist Profiles: Prof. Wasserscheid

Editor’s Notes: Ahead of the International Symposium on Green Chemistry, NESSE Member Simon Rauch interviews Professor Wassercheid.  Prof. Wassercheid is a German chemist and professor for chemical reaction engineering at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Prof. Wassercheid will be presenting a plenary lecture at the ISGC on the topic of Novel, selective catalytic routes to organic acids from biomass. If you are attending the ISGC, or would like to participate regardless – NESSE are giving you the opportunity! For full details please see our dedicated ISGC page.Prof. Wasserscheid


The long list of your awards begins with the first prize at the contest “Jugend forscht” (Young researchers). How did it come that you took part at this contest in the field of chemistry at a humanistic highschool? What is the fascination of chemistry?

It was not my decision to visit a humanistic highschool but my parents’ at this time. The interest in physics and chemistry came during school and so I decided, independently from the type of school, to participate in the “Jugend Forscht” competition. My feeling at this time was that the particular contest of “Jugend forscht” offers a very nice platform for first steps in science. You are free to develop your own topic, you get support by the school, and you have very experienced referees on the different stages of the contest which give you valuable feedback and a first glimpse on how science works. This was very fascinating for me from the very beginning; I understood that what you learn at school is the foundation of a scientific process. I was attracted by the fact that even a very young researcher can easily cross the border to virgin areas in science.

How do you understand the term sustainability?

Research towards sustainable chemical manufacturing implies that all relevant material and energy cycles of a newly developed process should be closed. This is a significant challenge as most of the traditional manufacturing processes in the chemical industry take fossil fuels as material and energy source and many relevant cycles are not fully closed so far. Thus a central question in the development of sustainable chemical processes is: “Will my new technology work without producing something that is not part of the cycle”. Of course, such newly developed technologies are only of value if they are applicable. Applicability includes effectiveness, economic attractiveness, and social compatibility.

How does your research contribute to a sustainable development? What will be the topic of your talk at the ISGC 2017 in La Rochelle?

Here in Erlangen at the Friedrich-Alexander University my group is active in catalysis and material science towards more effective chemical reaction engineering. We apply this to topics like chemical energy storage, selective hydrogenation/dehydrogenation and C-C-coupling reactions but also to biomass conversion processes. In La Rochelle I will talk about new routes to convert biomass to formic acid and acrylic acid and probably also about hydrogen storage technologies based on Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carrier (LOHC) systems.  

You talked about more effectiveness. But I often hear efficiency in the context of sustainability. An increasing efficiency comes along with a higher chance of external effects in the range of systemic risk. This increases the vulnerability of the entire system.  Shouldn’t we be more aware of the balance between efficiency and resilience?

Well, it is getting a bit philosophical here I think that a researcher dedicated to the goal of sustainability should define the terms “effective” and “efficient” in a sustainable manner. This would exclude the negative effects that you have mentioned. You may criticize chemical engineering approaches of the past that have strived for greater efficiency and left some aspects of sustainability out and this is exactly what we should avoid in the future. So our “effective” and “efficient” is exactly an effectiveness and efficiency in a closed cycle that aims for maximizing sustainability. And therefore I don’t see a contradiction between my definition of effectiveness and efficiency and the term of sustainability.  

Do you think that a technological development is sufficient to reduce the risk our society is confronted with? I don’t believe in the sustainability of an economic system, which is based on the paradigm of infinite growth on a planet with limited resources. Is humbleness a necessary virtue of scientists?

First of all, infinite growth in quantities is indeed a problematic goal. In contrast, if we talk about a growth in quality, this is the way to go. Growth and sustainability are not in contradiction, if you talk about a growth in quality of your processes and products. If people are ready to pay more for the higher quality, we generate growth on the economic scale without just numbering up and wasting more resources.

Humbleness is important for every scientists, because the world is full of secrets and not everything can be overlooked by a human being in 2017. We are not one hundred percent sure, whether the things we propose to increase sustainability now, will be seen as a positive contribution to this goal in 2050. The scientific development is full of misjudgement with respect to what future generations need. Still, with all the knowledge we have, all the knowledge that we can look up very quickly today on the internet, I think the chance that we go completely wrong if we honestly try to be sustainable, is very low.

You recommended a career in academia for those who don’t see the sense of their life in increasing the profit of a company, because scientists work for reputation and honor. But are scientists still able to work freely as this was meant to be, for example by Alexander Humboldt or Karl Jaspers. Or are they more and more subjected by the New Public Management?

This is a question regarding the funding situation of an academic institution like ours. We have a large research group that is working on interesting scientific questions, but in order to have such a large group, we need to bring in third-party funding. This external funding comes from different organisations, for example the German Science Foundation, the European Community or different industrial partners. Every sponsor has its own agenda. This agenda may be fundamental science, like in the case of the German Science Foundation, but it may also be a close networking of industry and academia towards a potential product, problem solution or market scenarios.

I think one has to be so fair to say, that academic research is very expensive and so it has to give something back to the society. One very important part is the student education, but another part is to create some sort of value for the society on a short, medium or long term. I can accept politicians or tax payers which expect that an engineering institution should have an impact on the technological development of a country. This is different from an academic institution in humanities, where the questions are typically much more fundamental. It would be wrong if academic engineering institutions would avoid the contact with real world problems. The only reason why you need to be an engineer is to transfer fundamental knowledge into better products or processes. This has naturally an exposure to application and industrial realisation.

Having said this, I have the opinion that also an engineering professor should have the freedom to follow her or his visionary and future-oriented ideas on a longer timescale even if these have no immediate application today. I would certainly like to have more longterm funding to follow such type of research directions. If you would give me money for five positions guaranteed for the next fifteen years, I would certainly start to develop topics that are different from the current hypes and could potentially be of high future value.

German Universities have problems with the copyright law and digital access to scientific literature.  Shouldn’t we start to think about open access to scientific insights and increase the transparency in exchange to public funding?

This is a question that has many different implications and is not easy to answer in a couple of sentences. One problem is certainly that some publishers see publishing of scientific results as big business, with maximizing return on investment to make shareholders happy. Consequently, it becomes more and more unaffordable for scientific institutions to cover the cost for the needed full access to the current state-of-the-art. On the other hand, scientists write for free, referee for free and edit for free. They typically do so to work on their own scientific reputation. This looks indeed like a rather unfair system. So, in the future, we have to find better ways to assure top quality refereeing and fair paper selection that still give full access of the scientific community to all relevant results.
It is also problematic that many scientific communities have created strong incentives to maximize the quantitative paper output of their scientists. Even with all the electronic databases, it is inefficient if a certain part of the publications is just produced by the need to publish and not by the need to communicate essential results. Of course, this aspect has a strong interplay with the questions how you rank scientists, how you distribute resources and, in some countries, even how scientists are paid.

Has the research in the field of sustainability had an effect on the way you live your life?

It gives you a good feeling. I try to do my scientific work in a way that I can discuss with people about it without feeling ashamed. I want to give them the feeling that we contribute to a better future of our society. This gives me a personal satisfaction and therefore it contributes in a positive manner to my life. This would be certainly different, if I would have to do research for a company or organisation on things that I do not feel appropriate for a sustainable development. This is one good thing of being a professor, because you can freely select your topics and your scientific goals.


This post was edited by Thomas Clark.