UVA Schools Secure Prestigious Partnership

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Quite simply, Germany’s Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science is one of the most productive and innovative organizations devoted to fundamental research in the world. Eighty-three Max Planck Institutes conduct basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences and the humanities, focusing on the most difficult scientific and societal challenges. Each year, Max Planck’s 5,600 scientists produce more than 15,000 publications. Since the society’s founding, 43 of its scientists have been named Nobel laureates.

Although Max Planck researchers collaborate with thousands of colleagues around the world, few universities are formally asked to participate in Max Planck initiatives. It was a mark of distinction this year when labs from UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences were asked to join MAXNET Energy, a consortium of seven Max Planck Institutes. The other international academic partner is Cardiff University in Wales.

UVA and Max Planck believe so strongly in this partnership’s potential that they’ve put money on the line. Both have committed $2 million to support the partnership during its first five years. Initial funding on UVA’s side is coming from the President’s Fund for Excellence, the Engineering School and the College.

World-Class Expertise on Grounds

The Max Planck Society created MAXNET Energy to jump-start the fundamental chemical science and engineering needed for more efficient, practical delivery of energy from less polluting and renewable sources. UVA’s research focus fit the bill. “We are pursuing use-inspired fundamental research,” said chemistry professor T. Brent Gunnoe, director of the University side of the partnership.

“Students will have the experience of conducting research in different lab settings, developing new skill sets and working with a range of advisors and mentors.”

Eight UVA research groups from four departments—chemistry, mechanical and aerospace engineering, materials science and engineering, and chemical engineering—will participate in MAXNET Energy. Robert Davis, the Earnest Jackson Oglesby Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, is working with Gunnoe, serving as co-director.

Three collaborative seed research projects have been initiated: a project to develop new and inexpensive processes for distributed conversion of natural gas to liquid fuel; one focused on new materials for photocatalytic and/or electrocatalytic production of fuels from water, which can be driven by energy derived from the sun; and the implementation of heat management technology that would make it possible to use a solar thermal system to produce fuel. All three projects are based upon key developments from UVA research groups.

Advantages That Will Pay Off For Future Researchers

The MAXNET Energy project creates a host of opportunities for UVA researchers and students. The Max Planck Institutes maintain state-of-the-art facilities, staffed by thousands of highly trained technicians. “We will be able to use equipment that would not be available otherwise,” Gunnoe said.

The partnership’s major impact will be on people. For faculty, this means extending their network of collaborators to include world-class researchers. For postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and, eventually, undergraduates, MAXNET Energy provides a superb arena for professional development. Students will be part of an international team that will meet regularly, both online and in person, sharing updates and providing feedback.

The President’s Fund For Excellence
The President’s Fund for Excellence is an unrestricted, discretionary resource that gives the president the capacity to launch special initiatives, to meet pressing needs as they arise and to capitalize on emerging opportunities to strengthen academic and student-life programs. In past years, the fund has financed retention of key faculty members who have been offered positions at competing universities; and its resources have been invested in critical fields that are in the early stages of winning foundation, endowment or other revenue support.

“Beyond the research discoveries we make, the ultimate measure of our success is getting our students across the ocean,” Davis said. “In addition to presenting at meetings, students will have the experience of conducting research in different lab settings, developing new skill sets and working with a range of advisors and mentors.”

Of chief importance is that Gunnoe and Davis believe this partnership has the potential to provide these benefits far into the future. “Our hope is that this initial five-year period will be the beginning of a longstanding collaboration that will, over time, draw in more and more researchers from UVA,” Gunnoe said. “This collaboration could be the first step in a major transformation for the University.

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