"Germany places great importance on the bioeconomy."

Synthetic materials based on renewable resources help protect the environment. The scientist Hrishikesh Joshi from India wants to improve the necessary chemical reactions. To achieve this, he has come to the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mühlheim an der Ruhr. Read about his experience there in our portrait.

It has long been a dream of many experts: to stop using petroleum as the basis for producing synthetic materials and switch to natural and renewable resources instead. This would avoid doing further damage to the environment. Furthermore, such a transition would lower carbon emissions in the petroleum-based industry.

Hrishikesh Joshi is researching the sustainable production of synthetic materials. At the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Mühlheim an der Ruhr, the scientist from India is developing the special catalysts that are needed for the production process. Catalysts are substances that trigger chemical reactions without being consumed themselves.

Catalysts: a key element of the bioeconomy

The concept upon which Joshi’s work is based is as follows: cellulose or glucose is obtained from raw organic material – such as agricultural waste. Then catalysts are used to split these substances in a series of chemical reactions. Next, they are turned into synthetic products.

“Catalysts are a key element of the circular economy”, says Joshi. He is working on catalysts that are structured like an onion. Each layer is responsible for a different reaction. This means that a single catalyst can be used to spark several reactions at once.

A biobased synthetic – such as polyethylene furanoate (PEF) – has many advantages over the petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PEF allows fewer gases to pass through, and is lighter and stronger, while at the same time being more elastic. This makes PEF particularly suitable for packaging, for example.

Bioeconomy research at a Max Planck Institute

Joshi, whose father works in the chemical industry, has been fairly single-minded in his pursuit of his current research field. He began studying chemistry and material sciences in India before spending time in the UK and Singapore. At this time he was already focusing on catalysts for biobased applications.

After completing the final year of his studies in Singapore, Joshi was seeking a research opportunity in the material sciences. His sister, who at the time was writing her doctoral thesis in biology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, recommended that he take a look at what was on offer in Germany – especially at the Max Planck Institutes. The young scientist discovered an opening in Ferdi Schüth’s group at the MPI in Mühlheim and applied. One interview later and he was accepted.

Good scientific support in Germany

Joshi has now been living and working in the Ruhr region since 2016. He successfully defended his doctoral thesis in 2020 – online because of the corona pandemic. He says that he has learnt a lot during the past four years in Ferdi Schüth’s group, which is highly specialised: “The people there can really guide you”. Because he is particularly interested in applied science, Joshi would one day like to work in industry, explaining that more importance is attached to the bioeconomy in Germany than elsewhere.

People in Germany often ask him many inquisitive questions during conversations, remarks Joshi, adding that they are particularly interested in the cultural differences between Germany and India. Generally speaking, the young researcher found it easier to integrate than in Singapore, despite not being able to speak a word of German at first. It was only food that caused him a few problems at first, but that served as a catalyst: “I have begun to cook a lot”, he says.