Associate Professor Ondřej Jankovský and his Advanced Composite Materials research group have received a five-year, prestigious Czech Science Foundation JUNIOR STAR 2022 grant. The funded project entitled High-strength and water-resistant MOC composites with secondary fillers: contribution of 2D carbon-based nanomaterials and their combinations will take place at UCT Prague from 2023-2027.
Associate Professor Jankovský's project will deal with the development of high-strength, water-resistant, CO2-neutral, and completely recyclable composites based on reactive magnesium oxide with two-dimensional nanoadditives and secondary fillers. In the future, these ecological composite materials could partially replace Portland cement, the production of which is associated with 7% of the carbon dioxide emissions produced worldwide. Cement based on reactive magnesia (Magnesium Oxychloride Cement, MOC) have properties comparable to Portland cement, but a noticeably lower impact on the environment.
What are the environmental benefits of your materials?
The main differences between MOC and commonly-used Portland cement are the energy requirements connected to their manufacturing and the associated burdens in the form of greenhouse gas emissions. The basis of Portland cement is calcium oxide, which is prepared by calcining limestone at temperatures in the range of 900-1,200 °C. In addition, temperatures of up to 1,450 °C must be reached for the sintering of Portland cement. Both of which are very energy intensive. For the production of MOC, caustic magnesium oxide is used, which is prepared by calcining magnesite at significantly lower temperatures; a temperature of 700 °C is sufficient for calcination. MOC phases are subsequently formed at room temperature by a reaction with a magnesium chloride solution. The prepared composite MOC materials also have the ability to capture carbon dioxide from the air. It is also possible to apply fillers from “waste” materials to these materials, which is also a subject of research in this project. Therefore, MOC-based materials can be considered CO2 neutral; however, there are still obstacles to widespread, real-world adoption.
Can you be a bit more specific?
There are two main factors why these materials are not widely used. The first is their higher cost compared to the cost of producing Portland cement, which is due to the significantly higher price of magnesite compared to limestone. The second factor is the particularly poor resistance of these materials to water, which manifests itself in the rapid degradation of their mechanical properties. Within this project, attention will be paid to the latter issue. Preliminary results have confirmed that, for example, materials based on graphene oxides or carbon nanotubes significantly improve water resistance, even in small amounts. The solution we have proposed consists of the use of combinations of various carbon nanomaterials and selected secondary waste fillers in the matrix of composite materials in order to obtain highly strong and waterproof composites.
What kind of fillers do you envision?
Fillers such as fly ash, biomass ash, sewage sludge, plastic aggregates, ceramic and porcelain waste, or construction waste. Emphasis will be placed on testing and using real waste generated from industrial production. Based on previous cooperation activities with industrial partners, a sufficient amount of different waste raw materials tested in the project is ensured. The challenge will be to apply fillers in the largest possible quantity so that the material properties of the prepared composites do not deteriorate at the same time.
Why is it important to use fillers as much as possible?
The more fillers a resulting material contains, the fewer initial mineral raw materials will be needed for preparing composites. At the same time, it will be possible to utilize more waste materials that would otherwise end up in landfills. As a result, there will be a significant reduction in the costs of preparing these composite materials, while simultaneously reducing the environmental burden associated with their production.
How did you come up with this idea?
The idea of using waste materials in civil engineering and the construction industry is by no means new or ground-breaking. Currently, a relatively large number of research groups around the world are engaged in creating ecological building materials. Our project is notably unique in the application of combinations of different two-dimensional carbon nanomaterials in MOC composites, which will lead to comprehensive improvement both in terms of mechanical properties, but also importantly in the resistance of a material to water. In addition, the composites we design will be completely recyclable, and the development of appropriate recycling technologies will also be part of the project.
těchto materiálů, což umožní jejich větší rozšíření do praxe.
Can you be more specific about the principles of recyclability and recycling technologies?
Two basic recycling procedures are outlined in the project. The first, “thermal” method involves the re-calcination of the MOC materials. During this process, a material rich in magnesium oxide will be created, which can be used for the preparation of the next generation of MOC composites. The second, “mechanical” method will be based on grinding MOC composites at the end of their useful lives and their subsequent application in the form of fillers. If both of these methods prove successful, it will be possible to prepare a composite that will be prepared from 100% recycled materials or waste raw materials. At the same time, a reduction in the price of these materials can be expected, which will enable their wider application in the real world.
What does receiving a JUNIOR STAR grant mean for you and your research group?
Success here really has meant a lot, especially after not being successful in the ERC Starting Grant competition, where our similarly-conceived proposal ended just short of being funded. The projects that I have received so far as a principal investigator were mostly two- or three-year projects. Such projects do not make it possible to deal with an issue in depth, especially if the properties of the prepared materials are studied as a function of time, over a longer time. The five-year project will enable us to address the issue systematically, from the preparation and characterization of selected nanomaterials to the selection of the most suitable fillers to the design of high-value composites, including their subsequent recycling. However, for such a large project, sufficient and suitable laboratory spaces are also needed; the current spaces do not facilitate implementation for the planned scope of activities. UCT Prague’s management team is now working intensively on solving this problem, and I can only hope that suitable premises will be found as soon as possible.
What other research topics are you investigating?
We are currently working on a project funded by the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic THETA Programme (TACR THETA), focused on high-temperature oxide superconductors based on mixed copper oxides. In cooperation with CAN Superconductors, we are developing single-domain crystals with a controlled microstructure for applications in the energy sector. A Czech Science Foundation project dealing with oxygen non-stoichiometry and the study of phase equilibria in the Bi-Ca-Co-O and Bi-Sr-Co-O systems also ended last year, as did also the TACR ZETA project in which, in cooperation with OPV s.r.o., we developed composite filters for wastewater decontamination. Now we are also preparing large proposals as part of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports’ Johannes Amos Comenius Programme (OP JAK) call, where, if successful, my group will deal with, for example, battery recycling, high-entropy alloys, or the 3D printing of silicate materials.
Why did you choose to focus on inorganic materials throughout your research career?
Materials research has always fascinated me. My entire professional life is closely connected with UCT Prague’s Department of Inorganic Chemistry. I have therefore been involved in inorganic materials research since the beginning of my studies when Professor David Sedmidubský offered me the opportunity to participate in one of his research projects. That’s when I started studying the thermoelectric properties of mixed cobalt oxides, and other research topics were added over time. Materials research is not only about inorganic materials but it also includes analytical chemistry, nanomaterials, theoretical chemistry, physics, physical chemistry, and civil engineering. Even this JUNIOR STAR project is a multidisciplinary one.
After completing your doctoral studies at UCT Prague, you completed several internships at the University of Freiberg, Germany. How did your stays there differ from what you are used to in the Czech Republic?
The internships at the Technical University of Freiberg were definitely of great benefit to me. The Institute of Ceramics, Refractory and Composite Materials, where I participated in the CRC 920 project, provided a very creative and stimulating environment. During the internships, I not only gained new knowledge and experience, but I also met many great people. The main difference compared to the Czech Republic is probably in the method of financing research projects. The 12-year project I worked on, with a budget of around 30 million EUR, allowed for thorough research with the potential for groundbreaking discoveries. There is a lack of large projects in our country, and if such funding opportunities already exist, they are usually set for a short implementation period—e.g. for the current OP JAK projects with a budget of approx. EUR 20 million, funding is divided between several institutions and the implementation period is only four years. Another difference is the success rate of project funding. In Germany this rate is often more than 30%; here, it is much lower. The success rate for JUNIOR STAR 2022 projects, for example, was only 5%. The purpose of these projects should be to motivate young researchers to start their own groups, but the result is often disillusionment because even high-quality proposals with very good evaluations are ultimately not supported. Another difference is that academic staff and researchers have far higher basic salaries than at UCT Prague, while the cost of living is significantly lower in Freiberg than in Prague. That way, people there do not have to deal with “our” worries, including whether will be enough money to pay one’s rent or mortgage instalments.
Your progress in your academic career has been relatively rapid. At the age of 35, you are to be promoted to the rank of a full professor. You have received many awards in the past, and now you are embarking on this prestigious JUNIOR STAR grant. What is your recipe for success?
On the one hand, I am used to and willing to work quite a lot, and on the other hand, I have learned to effectively lead and coordinate a group of my co-workers. I don’t think that there is more to it than that. I was also lucky to join the Department of Inorganic Chemistry, which is undoubtedly the most efficient department at UCT Prague, providing an inspiring and motivating environment for basic research. At the same time, I am very well aware that all results achieved are always because of an entire team and, without the help of my students and colleagues, it would not have been possible to achieve such results. The year 2022 was very challenging for me. Knowing that my two funded projects would end, I spent a large part of the year just preparing new grant proposals to secure enough funding for my group. For Czech Science Foundation calls, I worked on preparing five project proposals simultaneously, which was very exhausting. In this context, I would especially like to thank MSc. Anna-Marie Lauermannova. She not only showed great effort in the preparation of this JUNIOR STAR project, but she also contributed several very interesting ideas that we will investigate as part of the project. I would also like to thank Professor David Sedmidubský and colleagues from CTU Prague (Professor Pavlík and Professor Pavlíková) for their valuable advice. Last but not least, I want to thank MSc. Craig A. Riddell for his English corrections as well as the international partners involved in the proposal. Together we managed to succeed in the grant competition, but the main tasks are still in front of us. In the next five years, we will try to design completely new composite materials for special applications in the construction sector. Successful completion of this project will undoubtedly have a very positive impact on research on the design of sustainable building materials, which will lead to a reduction of the environmental burden associated with the construction sector.