Thanks to the physical chemist Michal Otyepka, Executive Director of the Regional Centre of Advanced Technology and Materials (RCPTM) at Palacký University Olomouc, the first ever European Research Council (ERC) Proof of Concept grant goes to the Czech Republic to promote the transfer of research results into practice. It aims to prepare a sufficient amount of new carbon electrode material and, in collaboration with a commercial partner, verify its use in energy storage facilities—supercapacitors. The US AVX Corporation has already shown interest in testing, and other major producers from Europe are under negotiation.

Thanks to this one-year project, the physical chemist can capitalize upon and commercialize the results he and his team have achieved through the ERC Consolidator grant obtained in 2016.

“The goal of my first ERC grant was to understand the chemical rules of the two-dimensional world of carbon materials and subsequently look for new, super-functional graphene-derived materials for specific uses. Among other things, we have verified that with a targeted chemical treatment of graphene, we can prepare suitable electrode materials, which are a major part of so-called supercapacitors used, for example, in the automotive industry or electrical engineering. Now one of the developed materials that shows very promising results in laboratory conditions will be produced in greater quantities and tested in real parts in collaboration with a foreign partner,” explained Otyepka.

The new material has high capacity and could be cheaper

Graphene, a two-dimensional material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms, has a variety of extraordinary properties. Its derivatives are perfectly suitable for using in energy storage in supercapacitors. They are light, run electric current and allow large amounts of electrical charge to accumulate. The scientists in Olomouc used the commonly available industrial lubricant fluorographite to develop the new material. By chemical synthesis, they subsequently prepared a new material that can store large amounts of energy, and its production could be far cheaper when compared with existing electrode materials.

”The material does not contain any heavy metals, is relatively simple to prepare and is associated with significantly lower energy costs than it’s common in existing commercially used materials. While their synthesis normally takes place at temperatures of 600 to 1,000 degrees Celsius; with our material, we are able to perform it at temperatures of up to 150 degrees Celsius. We also achieve excellent results with respect to the number of charging and discharging cycles, which is another important parameter. While similar materials experience capacity declines after thousands of charging cycles, our material is stable even after tens of thousands of cycles,” added Otyepka.

From lab to manufacturing practice

However, the transition from laboratory to industrial practice always represents a big leap for scientists. Not all procedures and processes are always easily transferable from the laboratory to production practice. While scientists have so far prepared and tested only gram quantities of the material, they will now have to supply at least half a kilogram to the commercial partner. Thanks to the European project with funding of approximately CZK 3.7 million, they will jointly verify that it works in real components. “I am confident that the Proof of Concept Grant will help you to further explore the innovation potential of your project building on your ERC funded results,” wrote the ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon to Professor Otyepka.

Jaroslav Miller, the UP Rector, also expressed his excitement at the fact that the university is the first to have won such a grant in the Czech Republic. “It is a fantastic achievement of Professor Otyepka and Palacký University. The combination of personal motivation, inspiring and competitive environment and support for science from the side of the university bears fruit. I sincerely hope that other colleagues will follow in Professor Otyepka’s footsteps,” said the rector.

The uniqueness of Professor Otyepka’s success was confirmed by Zuzana Čapková of the Technology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences. “Two Proof of Concept projects have been previously submitted for the Czech Republic within the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, but neither has received funding,” said Čapková.

200 grants from 22 countries have succeeded

European Research Council (ERC) grants fund cutting-edge research across all scientific disciplines. The Council grants support to individual investigators and their research teams, with the scientific excellence of the project application and the investigator being the only evaluation criterion. The Proof of Concept aims to support successful ERC grant investigators at the earliest stage of commercialising the outputs of their research activities. The total budget for this competition in 2019 was €30 million. In total, 498 proposals were evaluated last year, with an average success rate of 40 percent. 200 grants were awarded to researchers in 22 countries. In Germany, for example, 15 succeeded, in the UK 34, in Hungary two and in Switzerland 13.

Michal Otyepka, 44, is the Executive Director of RCPTM and also heads the Department of Physical Chemistry at the UP Faculty of Science. He dedicates his research to studying the structure and properties of nanomaterials and biomacromolecules, was behind the discovery of fluorographene, among other things, participated in the discovery of the first non-metallic magnet. He has held a Neuron Impuls grant awarded by the Neuron Fund for Support of Science and is a member of the Czech Learned Society. He has so far published over 200 publications in scientific journals that have received more than 11,000 citations.