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Programming Macromolecules – How Alexander Böker moves between research and science management

A chemist holds two perforated plates into the camera

Photo: Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research (IAP).

High-performance fibers for fast cars, organic light-emitting diodes for flexible displays, artificial corneas for eye implants – these are only a few things that would not exist without polymer research. For over 20 years, the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP in Potsdam-Golm has been developing polymers. Since 2012, its “Application Center for Innovative Polymer Technologies” has transferred processes for the production of innovative materials and nanotechnology from the laboratory to pilot factories.

Developing materials and methods that alter objects’ physical properties  effectively using biocompatible materials for implants and other medical applications or waste materials (from agriculture, for example): All this and much more is possible by changing the macromolecular structures of these materials. For over 16 years, chemist Alexander Böker has been researching polymers. During his studies, he worked in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and in the central research department of Bayer AG Leverkusen. After that, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Polymer Science & Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and was then a scientific assistant and, two years later, the Lichtenberg Professor of Colloid Chemistry at the University of Bayreuth, before becoming Deputy Scientific Director of the DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials at the RWTH Aachen. Since February 2015, he has been Director of the IAP and Professor of Polymer Materials and Polymer Technology at the University of Potsdam.

Research for Applications

It seems that Böker lives and breathes polymer research. As the director of the institute’s research and development policy, Böker identifies profitable business areas, potential industry partners to implement projects, and new research areas. Determining the institute’s research strategy, he emphasizes, is a collaborative effort. A proven team of experienced colleagues stands besides and behind him, which he very much appreciates.

What most interests him about his new role is the balance between the freedom of research at the University on the one hand and the commitment – or rather opportunity – to do practical work on the other. “The great advantage of the location is the connection to the University of Potsdam. Innovation can flourish where basic research can be done without the pressure to produce a result in three to four years. As soon as a project appears ripe for practical implementation, you can start looking for industrial partners and develop a product. The Fraunhofer Institute then comes into play with its development potential.”

Even as a child, Böker was fascinated with developing something useful that could be applied in everyday life. Growing up in Frankfurt am Main, he would visit his grandfather, who was a chemist at Höchst – once one of the largest chemical and pharmaceutical companies in Germany. Here Böker was able to see how medicine (against rheumatism, for example) was produced in a laboratory – “a seemingly inconspicuous white powder.” Chemistry was always his favorite subject at school, but he was never a homebody who preferred playing with his chemistry kit to climbing on trees. He knew rather early on that his career would be in chemistry – to him, chemistry meant progress. “Despite all past and present criticism, we all would be quite naked without chemistry.”

New Methods – New Risks?

Böker ended up in polymer research during his studies at the University of Mainz. The versatility of polymers inspired him. “It involves a lot of technology. It ranges from a small molecule developed via a novel polymer or an innovative processing method to an almost-finished product, such as a high-performance plastic. Or removing biological functionality from the natural environment and inserting it into artificial systems and changing it such that it also works in artificial systems.”

Böker gets carried away when talking about developments and opportunities of polymer research. “Not only the range of methods has been expanded but also their application. While building memory from plastic was still just a dream 20 years ago, IBM produced the first flash memory using polymer technology five years ago. A lot has happened, also in lightweight construction, electric mobility, and organic and inorganic light-emitting diodes (LED). Flexible electronics would be impossible without polymeric formations or polymeric carriers ...”

The IAP focuses on programming polymers. The goal is to modify the structure of polymers to aim LED light rays in a certain direction strengthens materials (such as car tires) or create novel carbon fibers. The fields of application are diverse, not least thanks to the development of nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology, however, is often criticized for its unpredictable risk to nature and humans. Böker cannot be indifferent to this: "Any technology being developed must, of course, also be socially acceptable. It is therefore important that there are good and consistent studies about the real level of danger. This is also important for us researchers, because we do not want to end up like Marie Curie: discovering new elements only to find out they are unhealthy or even harmful. What I find problematic is that it often lacks the necessary clarity. You may have four different studies on the toxicity of nanoparticles, in which researchers get very different results because they have examined different aspects. Critics often only cite the study that supports their criticism. But the uptake mechanisms of nanoparticles in the body are so diverse that a comprehensive research effort needs examine these in detail. In short, I see the development of nanotechnology as a great benefit, because many technological developments can only function in the nano range. We have to ensure we can go about this in an orderly fashion.”

Towards Industry 4.0

Böker also researches order at the IAP, albeit in other contexts. "My group has been concerned with the phenomenon of self-organization for a long time: small molecules, building blocks, small balls (colloids) that can arrange themselves into highly ordered states out of disorder. Generating processes that can independently create structures is modeled after nature, for example the growth of nerve tracts. Cells organize themselves, are interrelated – in a purposeful way. Each component knows where it has to go. Various physical interactions can be adjusted. It is possible to build larger constructs from small molecules that are discernable under the microscope.” Prof. Böker wants to transfer nature's ability to replicate itself, for example in DNA and RNA molecules, in artificial systems and create materials that can copy themselves. The created colloid chains should also be able to independently arrange themselves into a defined structure. The ambitious goal is to be able to put the individual "ingredients" into a solution and have the structures produce themselves.

But these are still dreams of the future; Böker sticks to the saying: predictions are difficult, especially when they concern the future. “Regarding developments in chemistry, lightweight materials will gain ‘more and more weight’, and polymeric materials will have more sophisticated physical functionalities – all moving towards Industry 4.0, in which the processed workpiece uses sensors to communicate whether the structure is functioning properly and how it should be further processed. The sensors must be small, smart, and cheap. The polymers must also have more biological functionalities, i.e. polymers consisting of biological components. This creates new application opportunities and reduces oil dependency because we all know that resources are limited.” There is still much potential for development, Böker is convinced.

Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research (IAP)

The Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research (IAP) offers a wide range of research work and services, which are based on the wishes and needs of its customers from the business sector, i.e. “tailor-made” solutions.  The IAP works on bio-based and synthetic polymers for end-products that are more durable, more acid- and heat-resistant, more stable, easier to take care of, healthier, more environmentally friendly, more cost-effective ... and easier and more energy efficient to manufacture. Towards these goals, the Institute develops innovative and sustainable materials, processes, and products specifically tailored to the needs of each application and creates the conditions for the developed processes to work both in the laboratory and under production conditions.

Text: Ingrid Kirschey-Feix
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published Online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de