The Accelerator

More efficient, faster – and sustainable: catalysis is Regina Palkovits’ passion. The acceleration of processes also plays a key role in the chemist’s life – for example, when it comes to promoting early-career scientists.

11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Why do we need a day like this?

To get girls interested in technology and science and to recruit potential specialists at an early stage. It is also a good opportunity to draw society’s attention to the fact that science and technology are the core elements we need to navigate the change in resources and energy in interplay with each other. The potential of the female population is far from exhausted in this context. There is still a lack of women role models. If, for example, all family members work in an office, it may seem absurd to a girl to look for a job in a laboratory or to spend a few months abroad as an engineer commissioning large facilities. For many young women, such examples are far removed from the reality of their own lives. That is why it is important to show them potential options – and the day fits in well with this.

And now a question that is unfortunately still rarely asked of men: You have two children, 10 and 12 years of age, and you can look back on a successful career. How did you manage to balance everything?

With a great man (laughs). He took parental leave and brought stability to my working life. The university environment also offers a lot of flexibility – if you demand it. I used to take my children to meetings in a Maxi Cosi car seat or pram. There was always someone willing to walk up and down the corridor with them. Or their grandmother accompanied me to conferences and looked after the children. You have to stay in motion. But it’s true, without this support, it would have been difficult.

How did you come up with the idea of studying chemical engineering in the first place? Women are still underrepresented in this field today...

Well, no one ever told me that science and technology are not for girls. And that was good. My favourite subjects were always maths and science. I went to a secondary school for girls – nobody there told me that boys are the better scientists. And I was lucky enough to always find fantastic mentors who encouraged me to go my own way.

„I believe that women with the qualities usually mentioned as strengths have an ideal starting position – in other words, very good communication skills, empathy paired with expertise in their field, and good self-confidence.“

Women mentors too?

Actually, I didn't have a female role model for many years. However, there were very, very few women in engineering back then. Today, women make up two thirds of my team, without me having done anything explicitly to achieve this. Clearly, a lot has happened in the past 20 years.

What about networking? For a long time, it was said that women are not so well positioned...

In my view, networking in itself has become more uniform and is no longer gender specific; it’s become more diverse if you like. However, networking still plays a major role. As an early-career scientist, I was in a fast track programme of the Robert Bosch Foundation. The network is still going strong today. My colleagues from back then are all in pole positions now. That is valuable!

And beyond networking: what advice would you give to young women scientists who want to pursue a career in science?

I believe that women with the qualities usually mentioned as strengths have an ideal starting position – in other words, very good communication skills, empathy paired with expertise in their field, and good self-confidence. They just have to recognize this and demand space. And self-reflection is important. But women are also very good at this.

And what role do you play as a role model in advancing early-career scientists?

I really enjoy helping young people prepare for a career, getting them “on track”. As mentors, we should be aware that – if we do it right – we are a huge accelerator and we set the course for the next 20 years or more.

„Explaining science as clearly as possible is a matter close to my heart.“

So you are, in the best sense, also a “catalyst”?

I hope so. I now also have a few academic children.

A few words about your latest prize, the “project of the century” awarded by the Werner Siemens Foundation: 100 million Swiss francs, which is more than € 106 million, for “catalaix” (see box) – an unimaginable amount of money. How does that feel?

It hasn’t really hit home yet. It started on a very small scale – with a call for tenders and ten pages detailing our vision in condensed form. A lot of very good scientists threw their hat into the ring; that we won in the end was a surprise in itself and a great success for us. I am now very much looking forward to working with excellent people and turning our vision into reality.

Project of the century: “catalaix”

Using plastic waste as a valuable, recyclable resource – that is the goal of the catalaix project. With the help of catalysis – the technology that influences the speed of chemical reactions – plastics will be broken down into molecular building blocks that can then be fed into various value chains and material cycles.

A team of 17 headed by Regina Palkovits and her colleague Jürgen Klankermayer from RWTH Aachen University won the Swiss Werner Siemens Foundation’s (WSS) ideas competition – an accolade worth 100 million Swiss francs. From the Jülich side, Peter Wasserscheid is involved as the founding director of INW and Ulrich Schurr as a bioeconomist and director of the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences (IBG-2, Plant Sciences). Over the ten-year funding period, the prize money from WSS will be used to establish a research centre for the implementation of catalaix. A total of 123 teams from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland submitted ideas to the competition for “project of the century”, which was launched by WSS to mark its 100th anniversary.

Photo: Reactor setup for the catalytic reaction of plastic waste with gaseous components. © WSS, Felix Wey

You have received countless other awards, including the prize for “understandable science”. That was in 2008 – you were 28 years old. What role does this topic play for you today?

Explaining science as clearly as possible is a matter close to my heart. Just because something is explained in a very complicated way does not mean that it is good. But not everyone in the science community shares this opinion. It is important to me to communicate with the outside world and make sure that the general public knows what I am doing. And beyond this, communication is also important within research.


I work on interdisciplinary interfaces, in other words with researchers from different fields. The perspectives and specialist vocabulary are very different. I also have to have the discipline to explain what I do without using technical vocabulary. For example, many doctoral researchers contribute their expertise to the Clusters of Excellence - which is an excellent starting point for great science. But in order to pursue common goals and achieve progress, we have to enable them to understand what the other side is doing. And this is where understandable science comes in.

In addition to the various awards, you were also named one of the 100 women of tomorrow – what else do you want to achieve in the future?

Still the same thing as 15 or 20 years ago: I want to put things into practice and make an impact – and that’s where I see great opportunities in the combination of being a director at the Institute for a Sustainable Hydrogen Economy in Jülich and a professor at RWTH Aachen University.

The interview was conducted by Katja Lüers. Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Guido Jansen (Porträt), WSS/Felix Wey (Lab-photos)

Personal background

Prof. Dr. Regina Palkovits became director at the Institute for a Sustainable Hydrogen Economy (INW) at Forschungszentrum Jülich on 1 October 2023. INW forms the core of the Helmholtz Hydrogen Cluster HC-H2. She heads the subinstitute Catalytic Materials (INW-2) at INW. The 43-year-old is also Chair of Heterogeneous Catalysis and Technical Chemistry at the Institute of Technical and Macromolecular Chemistry, RWTH Aachen University. Together with colleagues, she also succeeded in acquiring the Werner Siemens Foundation’s “project of the century” at the end of 2023: 100 million Swiss francs for “catalaix: Catalysis for a Circular Economy”


  • Institute for Sustainable Hydrogen Economy (INW)
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Last Modified: 06.05.2024