"Molecular Marriage Broker". That is how the headline in the German daily newspaper Tagespiegel describes Dr. Matthias Drieß. Drieß is the leading scientist in a group of scientists that has just been granted about 7.8 million euros per year for five years to research "Unifying Concepts in Catalysis".
Most people know that catalytic converters have done a lot of good for the environment, but what else is catalysis good for? Well, let's put it this way: all living things on this planet survive by the power of the sun. The trick of capturing solar energy in small amounts and using it to put chemicals together into more complex (higher-energy) molecules relies on the concept of catalysis, usually involving enzymes. How does it work?
Basically, as Tagespiegel hints, catalysts introduce two chemicals to each other and get the "chemistry" going, saving all the energy which would otherwise be wasted hanging out at chemical bars or molecular discos. Okay, let's not push the analogy too much farther, the bottom line is this: nature uses catalysis to save energy and to create the stuff needed for life. Humans can use the same trick to save energy and to invent the new materials that will enable the green technologies which the future demands, such as a better biofuel.
Under the name UniCat, Dr. Drieß and the Technical University in Berlin will bring together scientists from institutions of higher education throughout Berlin and Brandenburg as well as industrial partners. The objective is not just research, but the development of industrially feasible applications based on traditional chemical or biomimic catalysts.
UniCat is one project granted funds through a campaign by the German government to create "Clusters of Excellence" making German Universities more competitive and preparing German scientists and engineers to lead technological advances. The program is a significant break from tradition--under which all German Universities were considered equal--towards a system like that in the US or Britain, where leaders like Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge and others attract international students and boost the competitiveness of national grads.