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Berlin as a Location for Green Chemistry

Berlin Senator for Science, Health and Care, Dr. Ina Czyborra in conversation with researchers from the UniSysCat Cluster of Excellence, Copyright: Antonia Aalders/UniSysCat

Berlin Senator for Science, Health and Care, Dr. Ina Czyborra in conversation with researchers from the UniSysCat Cluster of Excellence, Copyright: Antonia Aalders/UniSysCat

One of her visits took her to „BasCat“ – the joint lab of the Cluster of Excellence "Unifying Systems in Catalysis (UniSysCat)" and the industrial partner BASF in early October. Here, energy-efficient catalytic technologies, sustainable value chains, and data-driven, innovative methods of catalysis research are developed under state-of-the-art and realistic conditions.

Prof. Arne Thomas, the spokesperson for UniSysCat, says: "Berlin will become a future location for green chemistry." The ideas for this emerge from the basic research of the Cluster, in which researchers from chemistry, biology, engineering, and physics collaborate on the major global challenges of the chemical industry. In the future, this will have to stand on sustainable foundations and do without fossil raw materials and energy. This requires new production methods and processes, which the researchers develop together, focusing primarily on catalysis.

Clusters Provide Impetus for Startups

The path from the idea to application and finally to establishing a company can be exceedingly difficult, especially in chemistry, Arne Thomas knows: "The necessary equipment such as microscopes and other measuring instruments or laboratory equipment is very expensive." With the „Chemical Invention Factory“, the Cluster of Excellence is creating an "ecosystem" for startups in the field of green chemistry, which provides exactly this basic equipment and at the same time establishes close contact with research partners. "We have expertise from many different departments and from all four of BUA's partner institutions. This excellent networking is an enormous advantage for Berlin as a location," says Arne Thomas, who underlines how research in the Cluster of Excellence also lays the basis for economic impetus and thus reflects the successful knowledge transfer from the Clusters. So far, there is no major chemical production in Berlin. With smaller, decentralized plants based on regenerative raw materials and renewable energy, this could change in the future. Arne Thomas sees the central theme for a second funding phase from 2026 onwards as advancing the circular economy in the chemical industry. Other themes include the conversion of CO2 into high-quality products, the production and use of green hydrogen and the recycling of plastic via catalysis.

New Interfaces and New Career Paths

The Cluster of Excellence "Matters of Activity", bringing together the humanities, natural sciences, and design sciences, is an example of interdisciplinarity in action. This is also reflected in the Cluster's spokespersons, who are the design and cultural scientist Prof. Claudia Mareis, the art historian Prof. Horst Bredekamp, the physicist Prof. Peter Fratzl, and the knowledge and media historian Prof. Wolfgang Schäffner. Under the overarching theme of active materials, the Cluster brings together researchers who normally have little in common in joint projects: for example, a designer works and collaborates in the microbiology lab, and a digital media expert conducts research with physicians. This leads to unique results, but also to unusual career paths: "The Cluster is currently facing the challenge of making a hybrid doctorate possible in Berlin," explains Cluster-spokesperson Claudia Mareis. "This has been difficult so far, but it could highlight and strengthen the uniqueness of the Berlin research environment in the future."

"Matters of Activity" forges close links not only between different research disciplines, but also between the scientific community and the urban society. In transdisciplinary projects, researchers and stakeholders from urban society collaborate in developing exhibitions, workshops, and innovative formats of science communication such as the BUA-funded Experimental laboratory „CollActive Materials“, in which society and science speculate about possible futures, for example around the topic of air.

In order to continue attracting the brightest minds to Berlin, the Cluster wants Berlin's politicians to be even more courageous in the future in supporting extraordinary and sometimes risky research projects – also with a view to a possible further funding phase, for which the Clusters must apply next August. Sometimes, it's the new, unfamiliar paths that lead to surprising solutions to current problems. "Clusters of Excellence are also experimental spaces. And that requires additional financial resources", emphasizes Cluster-spokesperson Wolfgang Schäffner.