8. Aug. 2019

Fifteen years ago Jan Macák thought that in 2019 the area of his scientific interest would be completely exhausted and there wouldn’t be anything left to explore. He couldn´t be further from truth. The new leader of Advanced Low-dimensional Nanomaterials group admits that although the team has already ten people and keeps growing, they are still not able to meet all the demands from collaborating partners. At Faculty of Chemical Technology of University of Pardubice has Jan Macák been developing a new type of solar cell using nanotubes from titanium dioxide as part of his ERC grant. At CEITEC BUT he extends his work and researches also other low-dimensional materials. 

In 2015 you succeeded in the European Research Council (ERC) competition and received five-year grant for 45 million Czech crowns. What is this awarded project about?

I am a material scientist and my whole career I have been exploring the methods of material preparation using electrochemistry. More specifically I have been working mostly with nanotubes from titanium dioxide. It is so called one-dimensional material because one dimension, the length of tubes, is out of the nano scale. Other dimensions such as diameter of the tubes and thickness of the walls are in nanometers. You can imagine every tube is like one straw. All tubes together create system of billions of straws which are formed very symmetrically, have large surface and inner capacity. We can effectively use that for storage of other materials inside tubes and actively use it in applications where large functional surface is important, for instance in catalysis. Using different methods, I try to insert functional materials, e.g. light absorbers, into these tubes. My ERC project focuses on creating new concept of solar cell using interiors of the nanotubes to store so called chromophores. These substances absorb sunlight and transform it into electrical energy. 

At CEITEC BUT you lead the research group Advanced low-dimensional nanomaterials. Does the work of your group somehow overlap with what you do in the ERC grant? 

Besides these mentioned nanotubes, also different nanofibers, nanowires and nanoparticles  belong among low-dimensional materials. Equipment of CEITEC BUT allows us to prepare these materials, modify and characterize them. That is where my work in Brno and Pardubice overlaps in some ways. At CEITEC BUT we create the same materials, but we develop them further and in different directions. We are interested in biological applications the most. They are also explored from many different angles by other groups at CEITEC. In Pardubice we have a device for atomic layer deposition which is a key technology that allows us to modify materials very effectively. Thanks to that we can create thin functional layers that have wide range of usage. At CEITEC we explore how to use those functional layers in sensors or lithium batteries. 

 You work both in Pardubice and Brno. Is your research at CEITEC BUT specific in any way?

Firstly, there is an extremely stronginfrastructure of characterization techniques. Reading our articles, experts can tell that we have really a top-notch equipment. Thanks to that we can for instance take high quality microscopic pictures and embellish our publications. However, the most important things here are the top-quality staff and the amount of highly effective interdisciplinary cooperation. You can have top technologies but without the right people you cannot use them for anything. People are crucial. It is a joy to cooperate with all the research groups at CEITEC BUT. 

 Your group at CEITEC is very international. How difficult was it to hire experts from all over the world for such location as Brno? 

I don´t want to sound high and mighty but it works on its own. When you get a certain position in the field, people know you and know what you do, or they can easily read about it and get inspired. So, when you then post a job opening, people react and apply. I always try to pick the best from the best. If you keep doing that for couple years, you create a network which then works on its own. People from my team keep coming with tips for their friends and former colleagues who could fit into our research group. I usually call the people, chat with them a bit and if they are good, I hire them. These people usually soak up the culture and the spirit of our team pretty quickly and dive into the work with high commitment. 

 Do you feel the level of Czech scientists and their motivation is increasing?

Definitely. The young generation of scientists in their twenties and thirties is overall more motivated and ambitious. I have colleagues who are not even thirty yet but have an unbelievable drive. On top of that the environment of CEITEC BUT is so stimulating that it makes everyone work harder. The local staff provides high-quality training and services which makes it easier for the scientists. We can rely on great training of students by our personnel. Therefore, we don´t have to lose time by teaching them how to work with specific machines and equipment. We can go straight to developing materials and solving research problems. 

Do you cooperate with other research groups within CEITEC BUT?

It would be easier to name the ones we don´t cooperate with. Actually, number of groups and colleagues contact us first, which is great. We have teambuildings where we get to know each other better and it is a great group of people. I enjoy working with every one of them. 

On what specific projects have you been working within your research group Advanced low-dimensional materials?

We develop nanomaterials for many different industries. In applied research we have a first major success this year. Our project Zéta (TAČR) led by Martina Říhová from our team was accepted for funding. In this project. in cooperation with Lucy Vojtova’s group and company Pardam Ltd. we develop fibers for dermatological applications. They should help solve problems with acne or hydration of skin. My other colleague Siow Woon Ng has been working on research of TiO2nanotubes and will submit a project on preparation of active carriers of catalysts. I think she has a great chance to succeed. I also have talented PhD students who work on similar materials and applications and their projects got accepted at CEITEC. I have also submitted some projects because we are trying to get enough funding and cooperation to make our group sustainable in a long-term perspective.