Top-NaviA Salzburg research group led by Simone Pokrant, a materials scientist, has succeeded in its application for an FFG (Austrian Research Promotion Agency) infrastructure grant, which totals around 2 million euros.
This is the first project of its kind for which the University of Salzburg has been able to secure funding. The grant will be used to upgrade a high-resolution transmission electron microscope (TEM).
This will open many new research opportunities for the scientists, including on hydrogen-based renewable energy. The project will start on 1 April 2021.
Hydrogen-powered cars for the future
What does a transmission electron microscope do? "It is used for high-resolution imaging and characterisation of numerous materials or substances," explains Simone Pokrant, Professor of Functional Materials at the University of Salzburg. Pokrant works on materials, more specifically renewable energies which includes, for example, batteries or photoelectrochemical water splitting. "My hope is that in the future we will be able to produce hydrogen fuel directly from sunlight," says Pokrant. This could lead to the introduction of hydrogen-powered cars or heating systems running on hydrogen. Hydrogen, which is also widely used in the metal industry, is still being produced from crude oil, which is highly polluted with CO2. The Salzburg materials scientist is currently investigating an alternative: direct extraction from sunlight. This so-called ’green’ hydrogen would have great ecological and financial advantages, as it is environmentally friendly, CO2-free as a fuel and, unlike electricity, can be easily stored. "We need the transmission electron microscope in order to advance our research. It has many additional functions, such as energy-filtered images and sample analyses at low temperatures, which we will implement with the help of the FFG funds." Research on this future technology is time-consuming. Mass production of green hydrogen could be possible in 30 years.
High-resolution transmission electron microscope (TEM)
The transmission electron microscope, acquired in 2018 as part of the Interreg project "n2m", is only equipped with the basics. The upgrade with an energy filter, a cryo holder and a cryo preparation unit will allow investigations on radiation-sensitive samples and spectroscopy. This costs a total of 1.948 million euros. The project, which is scheduled to run for three years, will start on 1 April 2021.
To start, each piece of equipment must be ordered from the USA and Germany. Then follows the implementation, which is an extensive and time-consuming process. The project is scheduled for a total of three years. "We should be able to implement the methodology in three years. At least that’s our plan," says Pokrant "we were all both thrilled and scared at the same time, because we realised that it was really beginning."
To make the most of the upgraded device, Pokrant has teamed up with other materials sciences and biologists. The two fields have common interests, such as the approach to irradiating sensitive materials, as many materials react very sensitively to electron irradiation. "Materials can be destroyed by the irradiation. We materials scientists can learn a lot from biologists here, because they have already developed better techniques for dealing with sensitive materials. Conversely, we are more practised in using contrast-enhancing techniques." Through interdisciplinary collaboration, the two research areas can benefit from each other and work together to better develop their respective methodologies. "We get extra equipment and can develop completely new methods," says Pokrant delightedly. For Pokrant, it is very important to work together from the beginning and to exchange results and experiences.
The research group
Gilles Bourret and Gregor Zickler, both from the Department of Chemistry and Physics of Materials, are also involved in the project. Zickler currently oversees the TEM, which is located at the Itzling site, and was immediately interested in upgrading the equipment. Bourret is currently pursuing similar research interests as Pokrant. Professor Nicole Meisner-Kober, a biologist, will make use of the high-resolution TEM for her work on extracellular vesicles (EV). These are tiny particles, only about 100 nanometres in size, that are released into the environment by all cells. The vesicles transport biologically active molecules between cells and tissues in the body. "Using the body’s own vesicles as nanotransporters for active pharmaceutical ingredients would enable a breakthrough in modern drug development," Meisner-Kober states emphatically. This could help with targeted chemotherapy treatments for tumours as well as administering novel classes of drugs, such as RNA therapeutics, Meisner-Kober adds. This is one of the research topics established in Salzburg since 2018 in cooperation with the PMU (Paracelsus Medical Private University) and SALK (University Hospital Salzburg), an internationally competitive research centre for the development of vesicle therapies. Since these vesicles - similar to the SARS-CoV2 virus - are smaller than the light diffraction limit, they can only be made visible with the help of high-resolution electron microscopy. This would only be made possible by upgrading the existing electron microscope. Dr Astrid Obermayer, another TEM specialist, is the second biologist in the team.
Simone Pokrant comes from the semiconductor industry
Simone Pokrant, Professor of Functional Materials, has been at the University of Salzburg since 2018. "Salzburg is like a home-coming for me," says Pokrant, who grew up in Altötting (Bavaria). Since the age of 20, she has travelled all over the world and is happy to have now settled in Salzburg. Above all, she really enjoys research and teaching. "It is a very rewarding task to pass on knowledge and engage with young people". Pokrant, who was previously employed in large companies, has now returned from working in the field to science and teaching. Her path led her from Tübingen and Marburg, where she studied chemistry, to Berkeley in the USA. There she wrote her diploma thesis in theoretical chemistry. She then went on to complete her doctorate in Physical Chemistry at the Universities of Bonn and Marburg. Pokrant then started work in Grenoble in the semiconductor industry in the field of transmission electron microscopy. "All kinds of chips were made there, for mobile phones or cameras, for example." Experience gained there is now helping in the current upgrade of the TEM. With these microscopes, she says, extreme magnifications down to atomic resolution are possible, which are especially important for semiconductor chips for mobile phones, for example. Following on from this, she then went back to Germany to work for the Zeiss Group as a Product Manager for transmission electron microscopes. "Over time, I got the impression that my work revolving around business and finance." She went back to science and took a group leader position at Empa (Switzerland), working on materials for applications in the energy sector, especially for batteries and photoelectrochemical water splitting. She then spent two years as a Professor of Physical Chemistry in Saarbrücken. Since working ath the Paris Lodron University of Salzburg, everything has come full circle. Here she can use all the knowledge she has acquired both in industry and at universities for her research work and also pass it on to the younger generation.