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START Prize for Miriam Unterlass

Chemist Miriam Unterlass has been awarded the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) START Prize for her work developing new production methods for high-performance materials.

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© Karoline Wolf

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Many organic high-performance materials, which are needed, for example, for batteries, photovoltaic systems and the filtration of exhaust gas, involve very complex production processes, which often require a lot of effort and the use of highly toxic additives. However, Miriam Unterlass from the Institute of Materials Chemistry at TU Wien and her research group take a rather different approach. This scientist has managed to use a process modelled on those that take place deep in the earth’s crust to create these kinds of materials under high pressure in hot water. She has now been awarded the prestigious START Prize by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) for this work.

Synthesis in a pressure cooker
“We work with high temperatures and high pressure,” explains Miriam Unterlass. “This is actually an unconventional approach when it comes to the synthesis of organic structures. You might assume that organic molecules would be destroyed under such extreme conditions. However, we have been able to demonstrate that this method can actually be used to create highly ordered framework structures.” And this process doesn’t require any of the toxic solvents needed for other production methods.

Unterlass took her inspiration for the basic concept from nature, as some precious stones are only formed at great depths in reservoirs, where the temperature and pressure levels are high. This is known as ‘hydrothermal synthesis’. The concept of applying a form of hydrothermal synthesis to organic compounds is a new one. Unterlass and her team have already managed to produce large organic polymers using this approach, but they are now focusing on creating highly ordered, three-dimensional framework structures.

There is a high demand for such 3D structures made from organic high-performance materials. For example, industrial emissions can be filtered in the fine channels of these materials, which can withstand even high temperatures and extremely corrosive gases. They are also ideal for conducting ions, making them a promising option for batteries and photovoltaic systems amongst other things.

Miriam Unterlass awarded START Prize
Miriam Unterlass studied chemistry and materials science in Würzburg, Southampton and Lyon. In 2011, she completed her PhD at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Golm, Potsdam, before going on to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the ESPCI in Paris. She moved to the Institute of Materials Chemistry at TU Wien in December 2012, where she formed the ‘Advanced Polymer Materials’ junior research group.

On 19 June, the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) announced that Miriam Unterlass was to be awarded the prestigious START Prize. With this prize, the FWF gives young scientists the opportunity to plan their own research independently with financial security for up to six years. The prize money for the START Prize can be used by the winners to set up their own research team, putting them in the best possible position to take up leading roles in science.