Monika Bauer was the holder of the Academic Chair of Polymeric Materials at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg and until 2015 the Director of the Fraunhofer research institute Polymeric Materials and Composites (PYCO) in Wildau and Teltow. She had worked at the Central Institute for Organic Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic in Berlin-Adlershof since 1973 and afterwards at the Institute for Polymer Chemistry (IPOC) of the Academy of Sciences in Teltow-Seehof, which became the various Fraunhofer research institutes, including the PYCO, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
How does it feel like to be the only female scientific ambassador?
Quite honestly I wasn’t really aware of being the only one. This is why I am now belatedly rather surprised. However, to me this is a relatively normal situation, because generally speaking the natural sciences and, to a very large degree, also the field of engineering are fields that are unfortunately still directed almost exclusively by men.
Polymeric materials and plastics are being used by the industry in many fields ranging from the manufacturing of automobiles or the manufacturing of aircrafts, the field of electronics to the medical field. What characteristics make them so desirable within all of those fields?
We are dealing with a special category of polymer materials; namely with those materials that create networks. This means that small molecules form large networks. In some extreme cases the materials we develop consist of only one single intricate molecule with cross-linking points. This is a kind of development work not many research institutes carry out. The main advantage of our polymeric materials consists in them generally being able to withstand higher thermal or mechanical loads. This is particularly important in the aviation sector. This is also the sector for which we conduct most of our work at the moment. In this area it also becomes important to be able to reduce weight – predominantly when it comes to commercial aircrafts. It would be, of course, possible to use light metallic raw materials, but plastics can be made significantly lighter still. Just think of the aircraft cabins, you will hardly find any metal there. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to sit on metal chairs. This is why plastics are being used. And these are the advancements that are being fostered here in our institution.
What would you say is your personal scientific challenge?
Thanks to the advancements achieved in our region, for example for the aviation sector, we are, of course, very well prepared to face the energy revolution. This has not even exclusively to do with the policies at the federal level, we are in general well-equipped. We want to make sure that resources are, on the one hand, used economically and that we are, on the other hand, making a contribution to the fight against climate change through reducing the energy consumption. This is for instance why we are also working on processing technologies. In order to produce plastics, heat is required. Many of those plastics are being produced in ovens. We have been using microwave technologies for some time now. This significantly reduces our energy consumption as we can heat the raw materials directly instead of heating an entire chamber into which we then place the raw materials. This gives us a huge advantage for our future work.
The challenge always consists of creating special sets of characteristics, which do not fit together well at all. Let us once more consider the cabin of an aircraft. Heat resistant materials are needed, but at the same time they must not be heavy. These are characteristics that don’t match. In general plastics are quite flammable, but what we need is a very high fire resistance. On top of that we want an aircraft that doesn’t collapse should calamity strike. This means that in the event of a fire on board we want to make sure that there is a solid structure giving us time to evacuate. The so-called ceramization of components in the event of a fire is a topic we are working on.
As a scientist at a Fraunhofer institute you also have to act as a link between the fields of science and the business sector. This is your role at the PYCO in Wildau but also at Teltow and at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg. Who are your partners in the business sector?
Alongside the aviation sector, the automotive sector is one of our major partners. We are working together with several suppliers of the automotive industry, for example in the field of fibre composites, not just here in Germany but worldwide. However, we are also working together with many smaller companies from our region. Of course more than anything we also want to support our region and this is why a regional network is very important to us. Additionally, there are many quite specialised companies in our region – which of course encompasses Berlin too, as it is located in our immediate vicinity – and therefore we are focusing on finding specific solutions for small and medium-sized enterprises. This is something that is very important to us.
What are the framework conditions for your work? Which ones should be improved in your opinion?
Of course we would like to have a location at our disposal at which we could carry out all of our work. Teltow used to be such a location, but it became insufficient and so we see this region here in Wildau as one bearing great opportunities for us. First of all the industry is located right at our doorstep, which opens up collaboration opportunities. Additionally, there is also the university of applied sciences. The distance to Cottbus and thus to the Brandenburg University of Technology is also rather small. The train connection makes it possible to travel from Cottbus to Wildau in no time. Additionally, we have a lot of opportunities to cooperate with our important partner in Adlershof, the Humboldt University, and with the many small companies located in Adlershof. In this sense we are naturally looking for a location that also offers favourable transport connections. And this is precisely what this location will offer us thanks to its future airport, which will be located just around the corner. This is also important as we have industrial partners that want to be able to quickly drop by.
What is your vision for the future of your institute and for this technology location?
Of course I want the institute to continue to prosper and grow. Through our work in the area of plastics and our strong focus on lightweight materials we have created the perfect conditions to do so. We have focused our work on lightweight design for several years now and this was the right decision to make.
As a scientific ambassador, what would you like to tell “the world” about the location Teltow?
It doesn’t matter if it’s Teltow or Wildau; the location is not that important. At the PYCO we conduct research in the area of lightweight design. In this field our work is top-notch. We have for instance developed a process that can help us equip duromers, which, generally speaking, can’t be recycled and are difficult to repair, in a rather simple manner with those exact characteristics. This means that we have new technological opportunities in our hands that are also very energy-efficient and help us make a contribution to the energy revolution – not just in Germany but in general. The raw materials we are developing here place us at the forefront and that’s naturally something we want to maintain.