Since the end of 2019, the newly appointed professor at Graz University of Technology has been setting up the Institute of Chemistry and Technology of Biobased Systems together with Tanja Wrodnigg. “It’s fascinating that nature can do easily what our smartest researchers cannot yet do,” answers Karin Stana Kleinschek when asked why she is so interested in this field of research. “We scientists make great efforts to master the synthetic production of chemical structures, but find it very difficult to imitate what living nature seems to produce with great ease. Imagine, for example, a tree. A materials scientist would describe its very complex structure as a bio-nanocomposite with extremely interesting properties – something which has developed from an almost infinite number of biochemical interactions. Chemists and technologists design and build huge and complex reactor systems in which comparatively simple molecules are synthesized using very high energy and technological effort. However, chemical synthesis in no way equals the degree of complexity achieved by biological systems.”
Sugar and plastic
Her doctoral thesis dealt with cellulose at a time when biopolymers were totally unpopular as a renewable raw material. “Plastics, i.e. synthetic polymers, were very well accepted at that time because they have very good and useful properties.” However, many synthetic polymers can only be degraded or converted back into usable or unproblematic substances with great effort. For this reason, in addition to recycling, they are usually landfilled or incinerated. Furthermore, almost all plastics are produced from fossil raw materials with high energy requirements. So there is now a growing demand for materials that can be produced from short-term renewable resources or that can be (bio)degradable in the longer term, which can reduce the problem of disposal. One example is polyester, which is produced from sucrose or glucose, i.e. sugar as raw material. However, according to the researcher, it is important to note that biobased does not automatically mean resource-saving, and very durable products are often needed. This would have to be examined in detail for each individual case. “An important question today is: how can plastics and products with desired properties be designed in such a way that their production requires fewer resources and the materials either remain in the material cycle at the end of their useful life or can be disposed of completely unproblematically and inexpensively? The answer to this question is not trivial. If it were that simple, the big manufacturers would have had solutions on the market long ago.”
Many working groups, for example, are trying to provide cellulose-based packaging materials with coatings to obtain the necessary barrier properties and to control the interaction with water and microorganisms. “Although this is already possible today, the necessary chemical modifications or coatings can greatly reduce recyclability or degradability.”
Despite these challenges, the scientist is optimistic: “In the next five to ten years, research will be sufficiently advanced. Then we will have new materials available in some areas that meet these high requirements.”
Support for young researcher
The curriculum vitae of the former vice rector for research at the University of Maribor and member of various well-known networks is lively and impressive. But when asked what she is particularly proud of, she answers quite differently: “I am very proud that all the talented young people who received training in my group over the last 15 years are now employed and can live from their research.” Young women are also particularly close to her heart: “As a woman, you still have to choose between being a mother or a researcher, spending time with your family or doing research. I always had a lot of young mothers in my team and I am proud of them. But it is difficult to bring everything together. We should all strive to give young women in research the promise of a bright future.”
This research area is anchored in the Field of Expertise “Human & Biotechnology”, one of five strategic foci of TU Graz.
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