Coal, catalysis and plastics

The Max Planck Institute marked its centenary with a celebratory event on 24 August

August 18, 2014

Some 400 guests from science, politics, industry and society were gathered at the ceremony in townhall of Mülheim. Hannelore Kraft, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, praised the "proud history" of the Max-Planck-Institute for Coal Research "with its broad research profile and eminent scientists." Kraft added "I'm sure the instiute has a bright future ahead of it." The research carried out at the Institute would be needed in the coming years and decades. "Without any doubt we will continue to hear quite a lot of good news from this institute".

Text: Sarah-Lena Gombert

It all started with coal: the Max Planck Institute in Mülheim celebrates its centenary this year.

Coal, plastic, catalysis - these are the keywords with which the 100-year history of the Institute can be summarized. Founded in 1914 as the fourth institution of the young Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the researchers in Mülheim initially wanted to make harness the coal of the Ruhr district more efficiently. Later, the Institute, at that time already the MPI for Coal Research, was to produce the only Nobel laureate of Mülheim: Karl Ziegler, who set new standards in relation to plastics. Today, the institute's scientists are united around one research priority, in particular: catalysis, a process that accelerates chemical reactions and drives today 90 percent of all processes today in the chemical industry.

"When I look at the history of our institute, I sometimes wonder whether it isn't actually even more basic research, rather than applied research, which leads to extremely innovative and important applications," said Benjamin List, Managing Director of the Institute, during his speech at the ceremony. After all, said the research, the most major chemical discoveries of the last hundred years which led to applications originated from  basic research. Other speakers included Max Planck President Martin Stratmann and Klaus Engel, Chairman of the Executive Board of Evonik Industries.

Symposium with guests from all over the world

Institute Director Benjamin List (4th from left), right next to Prime Minister Hannelore Kraft and MPG President Martin Stratmann at the festive ceremony of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung.

 

Afterwards, a symposium of top scientists from around the world scientifically attracted interested guests: Alongside Harvard Professor Tobias Ritter, who will join the institute in the future as additional director, the scientists Avelino Corma, Lynn Gladden, Eric Jacobsen and Max Planck Director Frank Neese talked about their work.

In addition to these main celebrations, various events took place all year to better acquaint the citizens of Mülheim and the surrounding area with their Institute and its work, by means of a series of lectures, as well as an Open Day. The celebrations will draw to a close with a science experiment lecture on 13 September and a piano concert on 19 November.

The MPI's public programme began in April with the "Coal Research Centennial Lectureships". Renowned guests such as Krijn de Jong of Utrecht University and Klaus Müllen of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz gave lectures about the research facility and highlights from its 100 years of coal research. Two Directors of the Institute, Ferdi Schüth and Manfred Reetz, also discussed their research with interested members of the public.

1500 visitors on Open Day

Happy experimenters: on May 24, more than 1,500 visitors came to the Institute.

Where does the distinctive smell of a lemon come from? And how does a firecracker work? Open Day gave more than 1500 visitors compelling insights into the work of scientists at the MPI für Kohlenforschung. Precision mechanics workshops, a visit to the in-house glass-blowing facility and to other service departments also provided guests with a fascinating look behind the scenes.

Boiling, bubbling and burning: Chemistry is by no means magic, yet it still casts a powerful spell, as Institute Director Ferdi Schüth will show during his experiment lecture at Mülheim's open-air theatre on 13 September. "It's just so much more engaging to see certain effects live," he explains. He particularly likes the explosion of hydrogen gas, "But anyone who's experienced it knows just how dangerous it is."

At the event on 19 November, Portuguese chemist Nuno Maulide will show how versatile researchers can be. A former Group Leader at the Institute and now professor of Organic Synthesis at the University of Vienna, he is a skilled concert pianist and will mark the centenary by giving a concert where he once lived and worked. The scientist considers works by Bach, Chopin and Mozart to be important reagents for a successful musical experiment.

The history of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research

The inauguration of the Institute was attended by renowned individuals from science and industry on July 27, 1914.

The Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung was established as the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut zur Erforschung der Kohle in the year 1912. On completion of the first building at Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, research got under way on 27 July 1914 under the leadership of its first Director, Franz Fischer. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Kohlenforschung was the fourth institute of the then young Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and the first to be established outside the city of Berlin.

Franz Fischer's activities focused on investigating ways to produce liquid fuels from coal. The breakthrough came with the Fischer-Tropsch process, developed by Fischer along with Hans Tropsch. This process is now experiencing a renaissance due to the high quality of the fuels generated, with a range of major plants in operation around the world, including South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar.

After Franz Fischer, Karl Ziegler took over as Institute Director in 1943. His work led to a range of sensational discoveries that also enjoyed great commercial success. The invention of Ziegler catalysts in 1953 for the production of polyethylene and polypropylene enabled the production of large amounts of polymers, which are found in numerous everyday objects. In 1963, Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for these catalysts. Ziegler is Mülheim's only Nobel laureate to date. Research under the directorship of Günther Wilke (1969-1993) was characterised by the heyday of organometallic chemistry and homogeneous catalysis. Wilke discovered the particular catalytic activity of nickel compounds, and his discoveries enabled improvements to numerous catalysts.

Since 1993, the Institute has been headed by a Board of five Directors. Each Director presides over one scientific department, all of which deal with different aspects of catalysis research. The Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung currently employs some 350 people from 35 nations.

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