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Two thesis awards for research on electrochemical reactions

Understanding the proces of electrochemical reactions is essential to improve the technology for the energy transition. Fuel cell cars, for example use hydrogen produced from the electrolysis of water. Mariana Monteiro did fundamental research on the process and won two prizes with her thesis.

‘If we want to make the transportation and industry sector more sustainable, we need to keep developing new technologies,' Monteiro says. ‘Our society is going through an energy transition in which we try to use and develop renewable electricity technologies for these sectors.’ Electrochemical reactions are part of that solution, for example in fuel cell cars. Instead of being run by gasoline or diesel and emitting CO2, this type of car only emits water vapor.

These hydrogen -powered cars aren’t fueled by a large battery as in electric cars, but can drive because of a reaction inside. Pure hydrogen (H2) is fed on the anode of a fuel cell where a catalyst splits it into protons  (H+) and electrons (e). The protons pass through a membrane to combine with oxygen (O2) from the air and produce water, while the e pass through a circuit generating electricity to turn the wheels. ‘Fundamental studies on this reaction, can help pushing this and other technologies forward, making it more (financially) competitive.’

An impactful thesis

Monteiro dedicated her PhD research to fundamentally understand important electrochemical reactions that can be useful for the energy transition. She studied the production of hydrogen from water, and the conversion of CO2 to carbon monoxide. ‘Mariana has a talent for bringing different techniques to her research questions in a very successful and efficient way’, says her supervisor Marc Koper. ‘By doing so, she gets to the heart of the matter.’

Her incisive research got rewarded. She generated impact in different fields of electrocatalysis. Monteiro made observations that are fundamental not only from an experimental point of view, but also for simulating and scaling up the processes; and even contributed to opening up a new line of research in CO2 electrolysis. ‘Mariana's thesis is unique because it shows in detail how crucial the electrolyte phase is in the electrochemical reduction of CO2,’ Koper says.

Two big awards and her own research group

Koper nominated the research for two big awards, which Monteiro was both awarded. ‘My thesis received the yearly Amcel PhD Award and the KNCV-DCS Award from the Dutch Catalysis Society.’ This DCS award is given every two years to the best PhD thesis at a Dutch or Belgian university. ‘I felt extremely rewarded. It is nice to know that all the hard work you did for four years led to scientific advances and results that have an actual impact.’ Monteiro is the fourth winner from Leiden since its first edition in 1989. ‘Previous winners are now professors or industry boffins. A great recognition for both Mariana and my group’, Koper says.

After finishing her PhD, Monteiro went to the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin as a postdoc. ‘After only 9 months, I got a fellowship from the Max Planck Society. I am now starting my own research group in the department. I can’t wait to start exploring my own projects and ideas with my students!’

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