"I want to be part of this revolution"

At the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE), Monika Bosilj is developing new technologies for converting and storing sustainable energy. Read in our portrait about the breakthrough she recently achieved in her scientific research.

Almost everyone on the planet needs a constant supply of electricity. And actually, enough electricity is already available: even though more and more coal-fired and nuclear power stations are being shut down, their output can be replaced pretty well by using renewable energies sources such as wind, solar and biomass. It is distributing the power in a flexible manner that poses the big challenge: we must find ways of converting, storing and transporting the renewable energy – and then releasing it when it is needed. This is the key issue for the energy supply of the future. And this future is what Monika Bosilj is working on in the peaceful town of Freiburg in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany.

Research on heterogeneous catalysis for biorefinery processes

In 2020, 30-year-old Monika Bosilj finished her doctorate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) as a doctoral candidate at the University of Freiburg (Institute of Inorganic and Analytical Chemistry). Heterogeneous catalysis for biorefinery-related reactions was the subject of her PhD. In very general terms, catalysis means initiating or accelerating a chemical reaction using a particular substance – the catalyst. During the course of her PhD research, Monika Bosilj developed a new carbon-based catalyst and thereby succeeded in producing biobased chemicals, including so-called cyclohexanones. They can be used for example to manufacture renewable nylon, which in turn can form the basis for biodegradable bioplastics. A real future technology!

Monika Bosilj did almost her entire PhD in Freiburg. She describes the town in the Breisgau region as “one of my homes”, another being Maribor in Slovenia, where she did her bachelor’s and master’s in chemical engineering and in chemistry. “There are many differences between Maribor and Freiburg, though they also have some things in common. They are both European, and therefore connected in some way”, says Monika Bosilj.

Academic European links were also what brought Monika Bosilj from Slovenia to Freiburg: the Erasmus programme enabled her to begin an exchange master’s programme in the city of Bochum in western Germany. Originally, she only wanted to stay there for one semester, but she liked it so much that she almost did the whole master’s programme in Bochum. “People there are very open-minded and I quickly made many friends. Bochum and the Ruhr region are underestimated. Visits to the football stadium in Bochum were just a few of the many highlights there”, says Monika Bosilj with a smile.

Wide-ranging research opportunities in Germany

Rather than staying to write her master’s thesis in Bochum, she chose to do so at the Fraunhofer ISE in Freiburg. For one thing, she wanted to get to know more of Germany. And for another, the ISE offered her the chance to pursue research in exactly the direction she was interested in – there were virtually no opportunities to do this in her home country. “When it then turned out that I could do my PhD at the ISE in Freiburg as well, it didn’t take me long to decide. I have everything I need here, from equipment to financial support and expertise, to complete my PhD on the subject of ‘Heterogeneous catalysts for biorefinery applications’, says Monika Bosilj.

From the outset, her doctoral degree was highly practical in orientation. Using just a few autoclaves in a lab, Monika Bosilj synthesised carbon-based catalyst supports. She mixed biomass precursors such as glucose with proteins to produce nitrogen-doped carbons, which are used as catalyst supports.

It took some time for her to work out, through skilful experimentation and close observation, what triggered the desired reaction in each of the steps and which parameters she needed to adjust and how. Finally, after several interim stages, she managed to produce the tailor-made catalysts, which were later on used in hydrogenation reactions. This in turn can be used as the basis for producing bio-nylon. “I manufactured only small quantities of bio-based chemicals and the catalyst.” However, they can be produced on a larger, industrial scale. The most important thing is that the basic technology for synthesising functional carbon materials and converting biomass precursors into high-value chemicals is here – and Monika Bosilj took the technology to a higher level through her PhD work.

A researcher with a passion to develop and apply new ideas

Even though she successfully completed her PhD in December 2020, Monika Bosilj is still working at the ISE. She is further developing and optimising new catalytic materials to make catalytic systems applied in renewable energy conversion processes more efficient, sustainable and cost-effective. She now has more research funding at her disposal, sets her own ideas and projects in motion and is gradually assuming leadership responsibilities. It is a satisfying feeling for her to pass on her knowledge each day – while at the same time learning new things herself.

Germany offers the young scientist the best possible conditions for continuing with her research. “I find it motivating to be involved in this fundamental transformation in the way renewable energy is transported, used and stored”, says Bosilj. “I want to remain part of this small but major revolution that will ultimately lead to more sustainable and climate-friendly energy generation.”