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From cold plasma to lasers. The power of women in engineering science

The Small Grant Scheme (SGS) competition concluded last year is a part of the “Applied Research” Programme financed from the Norwegian and European Economic Area (EEA) Funds. The purpose of the competition is to support Polish women scientists in those fields of science where the participation of women is the lowest, especially in applied technical sciences. Funding for two-year projects was originally granted to 27 Polish female researchers. Recently, thanks to the efforts of NCRD, additional 4 projects from the reserve list were also supported. This is the total of over EUR 5 million.

– The purpose of our initiative implemented thanks to Norwegian funds was to support women scientists in those fields of science where their representation is the lowest. As shown by research from the Central Statistical Office, the vast majority of newly promoted PhDs in the group of engineering and technical sciences are men (65.1% in 2019), and this disproportion is even more pronounced among new postdoctoral fellows in these fields (70.9% men). All the more reason to congratulate all the grant winners. I am convinced that the results of their innovative projects will speak for themselves, contributing to the achievement of subsequent levels of scientific careers by their female managers for the benefit of the economy, social development and actual equality of opportunities in the area of R&D – says Dr Remigiusz Kopoczek, acting director of the National Centre for Research and Development.

So meet five ambitious, hard-working and brave Polish women and their projects.

Cold plasma will help purify water in the textile industry

The project of Lucyna Bilińska, PhD, from the Faculty of Process Engineering and Environmental Protection of the Technical University of Lodz, is aimed at solving a precise technical problem – “A modern technique of cleaning and recycling textile effluents using plasma catalysts”.

We use the products of textile industry, such as clothing, every day. Unfortunately, like any industrial activity, textile industry has a negative impact on the environment. The greatest burden on the environment caused by mass production of textiles is the huge amount of water used and wastewater emitted.

The treatment of heavily polluted wastewater is a major technical challenge, which Lucyna Bilińska, Ph. As she explains, one of the most promising treatment methods that has the potential to be implemented in industrial operations is ozonation in the presence of a catalyst. – It is the creation of the catalyst that is the most important stage of the project. This is where cold plasma comes to the rescue. This is how special thin-film catalysts applied to a solid substrate with an elaborate geometry were produced. Their effectiveness has already been confirmed. A dedicated design of a reactor has also been developed, which allows practical application of the catalyst, also on an industrial scale,’ emphasises Dr. Bilińska. – I expect that soon the TEX-WATER-REC technology will have a concrete outline,” she adds.

As a result of the initiated works, a complete and functional method of water recycling will be created, so that it can be reused in textile production processes. – From the very beginning of the project, i.e. the development of project assumptions, all solutions are created with a view to practical application in industry,” emphasizes the project manager.

Protection of water resources, strongly present in the European Green Deal strategy, is also one of the key challenges for the development of Poland. – Given the current demand for environmental protection technologies, I can expect great interest on the part of potential purchasers: companies producing ozone systems, but also target customers – textile manufacturers who want to reduce water consumption – says Lucyna Bilińska, PhD.

Municipal wastewater as a source of raw materials

Dominika Sobotka from the Department of Sanitary Engineering at the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the Gdansk University of Technology is also interested in wastewater treatment, this time municipal wastewater treatment. Her research is focused on the implementation of technologies that improve energy efficiency of wastewater treatment plants and reduce consumption of natural resources, mainly phosphorus, allowing their reuse in the environment.

The project “Integrated technology for the removal and recovery of nitrogen and phosphorus in municipal wastewater treatment plants”, implemented under the Small Grant Scheme competition, was launched in January this year.

– In recent years, wastewater treatment plants, in addition to their traditional role of wastewater treatment and sewage sludge treatment, are facing a new role, which is the production of resources, including water, energy and secondary raw materials, in particular nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus). The aim of my project is to develop an innovative integrated technology for the removal and recovery of nitrogen and phosphorus in municipal wastewater treatment plants, which will ensure the realization of their new role: production of raw materials – says Dominika Sobotka, PhD.

The results of the project, in which basic research is already underway, will be available to both designers and operators of wastewater treatment plants. – In addition to the new technology, a mathematical model will also be created, which can be used as a decision-making tool for designing or operating wastewater treatment plants, in order to reduce the environmental impact of the processes of removal and recovery of biogens – notes the project leader.

Lasers for atomic clocks

In her research work at the Institute of High Pressure of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Marta Sawicka, PhD, deals with molecular beam epitaxy. This technique is used to produce structures of light emitters such as LEDs or lasers. – A classical blue semiconductor laser usually has several lines in its emission spectrum that are a fraction of a nanometer apart,” explains the researcher. – The optical element that makes it possible to “select” one of these lines with a precisely defined wavelength is a diffraction grating. Figuratively speaking, this is a periodic array of materials with significantly different refractive indices, such as gallium nitride (GaN) and air. The period of the lattice determines what the laser emission length will be, which for some specific applications is crucial, e.g. in atomic clocks, he adds.

Dr Sawicka’s highly ranked project, submitted in the Small Grant Scheme competition of the National Centre for Research and Development, is called “Periodic NANO-channel gratings placed inside laser structures with single-mode emission spectrum”.

– The main challenge is to make inside the laser structure, under the active region, an array of periodically spaced channels with diameters ranging from tens to hundreds of nanometers, forming a diffraction grating. This is extremely attractive both from the scientific and practical point of view – explains the project manager.

What are the chances that this will be achieved? – After half a year of implementation we already have confirmation that the proposed way we want to reach the goal is correct. We have already filed a patent application for this method. In addition to epitaxy, we use selective ion implantation and electrochemical etching in it. We are about to demonstrate lattices with periodicity of several hundred nanometers and then their integration into the laser structure,” reveals Marta Sawicka, Ph.

The implementation potential of the project is significant. Stable operation and laser emission at a single wavelength with a high side-mode suppression ratio is required for such applications as high-speed short-range communication based on plastic optical fibers, precise time measurements by atomic clocks or advanced sensors based on interferometry. – I very much hope that at the end of the project I will be able to say that our solution has the potential to fill the market niche of semiconductor blue lasers with single-mode emission spectrum – concludes the researcher.

How to keep hydrogen in the tank?

The problem that Justyna Krzak, PhD, a research fellow at the Department of Mechanics, Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of Wroclaw University of Technology, has taken up with her team is how to seal hydrogen storage tanks.

The solutions he is working on are expected in the hydrogen technology market. The problem is that hydrogen is the smallest and the most mobile known molecule, therefore it penetrates practically any type of material; only the mechanism of penetration changes. – Permeation of hydrogen through the walls of storage tanks, depending on the degree, causes financial loss or safety hazards. It is also bad for the environment. Therefore, in the HyStor project, we have addressed the reduction of hydrogen permeation through the walls of composite pressure vessels,” says Dr. Krzak.

As he explains, such a tank, apart from a composite outer wall, is also constructed with a liner (a kind of an inner tube), responsible for retaining the gas inside the tank. In this type of tanks, the hydrogen is at a pressure of 700 bar, which is an additional factor affecting the permeability (for comparison, in propane-butane cylinders there is a maximum pressure of 20 bar). The liner in Generation IV tanks is constructed of a polymer, such as HDPE. – In the project, we are developing a coating to seal such a liner in order to reduce the escape of hydrogen from the tank to the greatest possible extent,” notes Dr. Krzak.

The team led by her will also study the mechanism of hydrogen permeation through the developed sol-gel coatings, which will allow for targeted design of sealing materials. – We are developing a measurement procedure which will enable in situ testing of sealing coatings, in particular the interaction of the obtained materials with hydrogen – explains Dr Krzak. – Additionally, in order to provide as complete a solution as possible, we are developing a system for coating application, its stabilization and detection of discontinuities on large-format surfaces – he adds.

Currently, in the project “Improvement of performance of hydrogen storage tanks due to novel oxide coatings”, basic research is conducted, the aim of which is to clarify the permeation mechanism. – We are developing new formulations for barrier coatings and conducting basic tests. We are also preparing to start work on a system for effective manufacturing of thin coatings on large-format substrates – enumerates the project manager.

Technologies, on which dr Krzak’s team is working, will be attractive for the industry related to transport and storage of gases of the smallest molecules, in particular hydrogen. The method for producing oxide barrier coatings, which has been developed for many years in the Department of Mechanics, Materials and Biomedical Engineering at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of Wrocław University of Technology, will also allow for extending the application of the newly obtained materials to other gases, such as helium, carbon dioxide or methane.

Who will benefit from the project results? Coatings limiting hydrogen penetration are technologies sought by manufacturers of liners for composite tanks or storage tanks themselves. – We will apply the coating to finished products – liners, tanks, pipes or entire systems for hydrogen storage or transfer. Moreover, we are developing a system which will make it possible to apply the barrier coating to existing installations – announces Justyna Krzak, PhD.

Green method for producing hydrogen

Carrying out research within the framework of a Norwegian grant, at the Department of Chemistry of Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, a team headed by Anna Ilnicka, Ph.D., works on a project entitled “Platinum-free graphene-based catalysts for water splitting as a green method of hydrogen production”. The research, conducted at the interface of nanotechnology and materials engineering, began in February this year.

– Our project will be an important contribution to solving a worldwide environmental problem,” predicts Dr. Ilnicka. – Efficient water electrolysis is widely seen as a way to accumulate excess energy that can be produced by some renewable sources, such as photovoltaics. This excess could fuel the electrolysis process that produces hydrogen, the fuel with the highest energy density per unit volume. The concept is consistent with the prospects for a hydrogen economy, he adds.

A key element for water electrolysis is an efficient electrode design that enables low potential partitioning with high durability. Eliminating platinum from electrode production is also important.

As the chemist emphasizes, the aim of the project realized under the wings of NCRD is the synthesis of such electrode materials and practical verification of their application properties. – We are interested in obtaining catalysts, i.e. graphene with 3D structure enriched in heteroatoms, metal oxides and metal oxides of perovskite type. The key innovation is the very synthesis of new electrode materials free of noble metals,” stresses Dr. Anna Ilnicka.

The most promising catalysts from the point of view of water splitting will be identified and described in detail on the basis of physicochemical analyses. The team will examine and characterize the chemical state of atoms to enable selection of the most effective catalysts for oxygen and hydrogen evolution reactions. – This will yield a precise determination of the types of catalyst sites, which will be particularly important for interpreting electrochemical measurements. An important step will be to determine the relationship of morphology and elemental composition with electrochemical and photoelectrochemical activity of materials, as well as their activity in the hydrogen evolution reaction in contact with aqueous electrolytes,” explains the researcher.

From the point of view of the commitment to achieve climate neutrality in 2050, the possibilities for practical application of the results of this research are wide. Among other things, a new type of energy source is needed for transport, electricity, heat, housing, agriculture, marine and manufacturing industries.

It is hydrogen produced on a large scale using green energy sources or using low-carbon technologies that represents a promising future for multi-sector decarbonization. – Hydrogen has great potential to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. It is abundant and has the highest energy content by weight, nearly three times that of gasoline, says Dr. Anna Ilnicka. – Increasing electrolysis capacity will have an additional impact on reducing the cost of producing “green” hydrogen, she notes.

Technology is a woman

What determined that women researchers submitted their projects in the NCRD competition addressed to women scientists in the area of technical sciences?

– Science is a passion for me. I have been interested in scientific issues since I was a child. I always wanted to know more and I was not satisfied with simple answers. Thanks to scientific work I can realize myself. The competition for women scientists in the field of technical sciences was for me a chance to materialize my scientific ideas. It was also a chance to prove that not only men can effectively solve engineering problems – says Lucyna Bilińska, PhD from the Technical University of Lodz.

– I was interested in the nature of the competition and the fact that it is addressed exclusively to women scientists. This, I admit, aroused my curiosity – admits Dominika Sobotka, PhD, working at the Gdańsk University of Technology. – The career of women who want to realize themselves as mothers and scientists is extremely demanding. For a woman, maternity leave very often equals a break in scientific work – especially in the field of technical sciences. That is why competitions such as Small Grant Scheme are so important, as they take into account the specificity of work of women scientists and promote their scientific career development – she adds.

Justyna Krzak, PhD (Wroclaw University of Technology) was also pleased with the proposal addressed to women involved in scientific research. – Although I do not care about preferential conditions, because scientific research conducted by women is usually at the highest level, I believe that it is worthwhile to offer new solutions in the prepared programmes to this group of scientists, because it is certain that they will be used effectively. Moreover, there are definitely fewer women than men working in the area of applied research in technical sciences, so it is worth supporting this minority,” she says.

– Another thing is that there is a great need for women to be multitaskers, otherwise we would not be able to cope with everyday duties. In this context, it’s really nice to see a competition designed just for us – it’s a kind of light shed on our environment. After all, look how many applications there were in the Small Grant Scheme competition alone: as many as 337. We are ambitious and it is worth creating opportunities for us to develop. Everyone can only profit from it – has no doubts Justyna Krzak, PhD.

Marta Sawicka, PhD (Institute of High Pressure Physics, Polish Academy of Sciences), says briefly about her motivation to enter the competition for women scientists: “The moment when the idea of using the porous material in the construction of blue laser appeared, coincided with the announcement of the Small Grant Scheme competition.

Dr Anna Ilnicka, a researcher from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, hopes that the management of projects in the Small Grant Scheme competition will allow their managers to develop their scientific careers and will contribute to strengthening the Polish scientific community by increasing the number of women scientists and their professional role in technical sciences. As she notes, many of the projects selected for funding have a strong environmental aspect, which brings Poland closer to achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal strategy. – In addition to environmental impact, the initiated research will generate a significant number of articles published in reputable scientific journals, whose authors will be women scientists – notes the specialist.

More information about the results of the Small Grant Scheme competition can be found on the website of the National Centre for Research and Development: https://www.gov.pl/web/ncbr/small-grant-scheme-2020-call.

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