Although used millions of times over to lubricate chemical processes, it is often not understood exactly what happens when the catalyst enables a reaction to take place without being consumed itself. For example, many industrial catalysts, which have been used very successfully for almost fifty years, contain isolated metal centres on the surface of oxide carriers. And yet the structure and action of their catalytic centres is still unclear today. Thanks in part to Murielle Delley's doctoral thesis at ETH Zurich, this is now beginning to change; and that is why she has been awarded the Prix Schläfli.
Although no longer so obvious, the reference to everyday reality is still there - more than ever, you might say. The process investigated by Delley is of crucial importance in the production of polyethylene, which is commonly known as PE. It is by far the most widely used plastic in the world. We know it from cling film, carrier bags, milk carton coatings, plastic bottles for cleaning products, etc.
A better understanding of this process could also mean it becoming more efficient, cleaner, more energy-saving - at any rate, a better understanding of the chemical and physical fundamentals opens up a host of possibilities for its application, says Delley. Does it sometimes annoy her, we wonder, that chemistry today is mostly associated with environmental problems, that plastic is associated with the pollution of the seas? Absolutely! "Chemistry should actually have a better image," she says. Unfortunately, however, people only talk about the negative sides of the chemical industry. She is convinced that this is partly a matter of communication for researchers, and something they need to work on.
"Doing research actually means being able to go to school for the rest of your life"
She herself cannot imagine ever doing anything other than researching. And then she says something that might sound like a horrifying prospect to other people: "Doing research actually means being able to go to school for the rest of your life." For Delley, the much-quoted principle of lifelong learning is not a tiresome duty, but a privilege. To keep on trying to understand how things are, and why they are as they are. She knows that this means science can never come to an end, that research is a process: a description of reality, which in turn provides input for further questions and further research. So even the brightest sparks among us never stop learning.