A master of molecules.
He develops materials to improve our medical care and help save energy in the process. For this purpose, the worldwide renowned chemistry professor Ulrich S. Schubert has established entirely new areas of research in Jena. And the father of five children still finds time to make music.
From his office, he looks out onto Philosophenweg. A resonant address in the university district of Jena. In this case, however, it is not so appropriate. For Professor Ulrich S. Schubert, who works here, is the anti-type of a scientist who views the world from the perspective of an ivory tower. The 48-year-old chemist heads the Centre for Applied research (ZAF). And those who meet him there immediately feel the concentrated energy emanating from the person. Recognising problems, proposing solutions and knuckling down to work. "The battery researcher from Thuringia" – this was the title of a recent newspaper report on Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Dr. habil. Ulrich S. Schubert. This was, of course, a short name for one of the most prestigious German scientists. Nevertheless, the person thus described was pleased with it. "We have succeeded in creating the battery and energy field from scratch", states Schubert with noticeable pride. According to the gist of the report, in just a few years we may be using entirely new batteries in our daily life – ones that produce no more pollutants and are permanently self-charging. These are currently undergoing development in laboratories in Jena.
A man of action – and a boon for science in Thuringia
"All the batteries in the shops today are manufactured by processes causing both a large CO2 footprint and enormous damage to the environment“, Schubert explains. Instead of toxic materials such as sulphuric acid and lead, molecules from plastic, dissolved in salt water, are used in his visionary prototypes. The revolutionary advantage of this "redox-flow technology": the material is not only clean but also stores energy. It is intended to be applicable in all forms – from the tiny LED light you can, say, integrate into clothes, via the drive for electric cars through to storage in container size. Five patents have so far been registered. In a specially founded Centre for Energy and Environmental Chemistry (CEEC), various teams are working on the commercial viability.
The Head of two research institutes perceives himself as a "creative molecule manufacturer". New synthetic compounds are intended to help in simplifying things and enrich our lives. Based on this assumption, Jena University is a leading player in the development of so-called self-repairing polymers. These are plastics that, for example, are added to paints and lacquers. According to Schubert, "If there's a scratch on a piece of furniture, you only have to run a hair-dryer over it to get a nice surface again." When he explains the practical consequences of his work, the native of Tübingen uses his whole body to express his gestures. That on its own is impressive enough: a powerful build and a striking nearly bald head, from which alert, curious eyes sparkle.
The opportunities available to get established in Jena convinced Schubert
“Creating from scratch": This formulation by Schubert exudes energy and a pioneering spirit. And this is exactly what motivated the internationally optimally networked chemist and materials researcher ten years ago to decide on the Chair for Organic and Molecular Chemistry at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena from amongst several offers he had received. "It was a special start", as the scientist with the impressive CV (a doctorate at the age of 25 and subsequent teaching posts in Munich and Eindhoven) recalls. The first time Schubert visited Jena, he was immediately fascinated by the environment he found there – the state-of-the-art university clinic, the many research companies, the perspective of interdisciplinary work. "A lot of things were new, but still undergoing development. It was precisely these expansion possibilities and opportunities that attracted me."
An early encounter with a neighbour also contributed to the special start. The former Director of Anaesthesia at the University Clinic and Sepsis Centre lived in the same street. Even before all the removal boxes had been unpacked in Schubert's new house, the two professorial colleagues got into conversation during a street festival: "I wanted to understand what these physicians actually need, while he wanted to know what these chemists are actually capable of doing." The dialogue, continued into the evening over red wine, ultimately culminated in a fruitful cooperation: in the development of a Nanomedicine Department. Here too, Schubert's molecules again provided for decisive impulses – being able to transport medical substances in the body using microparticulates (nanoparticles).
Research funds: Jena has the edge over competitors
Nanomedicine, self-repairing plastics, ground-breaking battery technology: all three of these major fields of research, established by Professor Schubert in ten years, have made a lasting contribution to further increasing the future sustainability of the Jena location. This communicative, charismatic person, recipient of the 2017 Thuringia Science Prize, is a real gain for the region. Only recently did Schubert succeed in securing prestigious funding for his diverse work from the German Research Foundation amounting to 9.5 million Euros for the next four years – "and this in the teeth of the fiercest competition from everywhere".
For the father of five children, a decisive factor for his choice of location was also the combination of short distances between the various university facilities and laboratories with the family-friendly infrastructure of Jena. "From home, I don’t even need ten minutes to get to my office, and I can take the children to the child day-care centre directly opposite", says Schubert with a smile. All this, coupled with his outstanding expertise, demonstrates that he also appears to be a good, responsible organiser.
A large family, committees and meetings, managing hundreds of employees, let alone any number of voluntary tasks – he is able to reconcile all this with a thrusting optimism. On top of this, he is also a person who loves music – and fits in the time to immerse himself in it. He is a trained clarinettist and pursues music just as seriously as his career. This is his oldest passion. The son of a Tübingen physics professor, he originally wanted to be a musician, but his father dissuaded him from this, instead ultimately inspiring him to study chemistry.
A virtuoso in the chemistry laboratory – and on the clarinet.
that provided the basis for Schubert's now 23 years of activity for the International Youth Orchestra Academy. With this Academy, he organises annual benefit concerts, where more than 100 musicians from some 30 nations come together, including from both South and North Korea. "We're the only institution in the world to have managed this ten times." The proceeds from the concerts are donated to children suffering from cancer.
Whether as orchestra director or research leader in international teams, it is necessary to understand different mentalities and combine individual abilities. And another parallel is also evident – the one for "creative manufacture of molecules." Here he blends solids and catalysts with liquids and heats it all up so that polymer chains emerge from new chemical compounds. "This process has an element of composition for me." The result – if the laboratory experiments are successful – is a new, ground-breaking product. This is also a crucial driving force in making music. According to Ulrich S. Schubert: "At the end, what counts is not what I've practiced behind closed doors but rather what I give of myself on the stage or in the recording studio."