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Technology follows nature

[Translate to Englisch:] Portraitfoto von Francesca M. Toma

Francesca M. Toma. Photo: Hereon/ Marcel Schwickerath

The Italian-American biophysicist Francesca Toma takes photosynthesis in leaves as a model to produce hydrogen in an environmentally friendly way. Now she is taking over the management of an institute at Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon in Teltow near Berlin.

The espresso machine that fits in a handbag was a family present a few years ago. Since then, Francesca Toma has taken it with her to every scientific conference. "I also have the espresso capsules with me, hot water is available on site," she says, and smiles at how quickly colleagues who don't want the obligatory filter coffee from the buffet gather around her every time. Cliché or not: "The good espresso is a piece of Italy that I always have with me," she says, "that was the case in the USA and I'm keeping it that way in Germany now!"

Actually, however, the biophysicist has now been influenced at least as much by the USA as by Italy: At Berkeley Lab and some of the other most famous institutions in California, she conducted research for more than a decade, and it was there that she achieved her greatest breakthroughs in the search for how water can be split with the help of sunlight, similar to photosynthesis. The environmentally friendly production of hydrogen is the goal here. She has collected many ideas, much closer to her goal, and now, as the new head of the Institute for Functional Materials for Sustainability at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, she wants to broaden her view once again: To meet the challenges of the climate crisis, she wants to combine hydrogen, climate and materials research. And the Helmholtz Centre Hereon is the ideal place for this goal, as it takes a very interdisciplinary approach to finding solutions for greater sustainability: Coastal, Climate, and Materials research go hand in hand there.

Yet Francesca Toma’s career might have developed quite differently if she had been good at painting. Near Venice, where she grew up, she had to choose a secondary school at the age of 13. "I'm so bad at painting and drawing," she says, laughing, "that I chose a school without compulsory practical art classes." Instead, she discovered chemistry for herself. And when, many years later, her doctoral thesis dealt with the question of how to improve the distribution of active substances in the body in cancer therapies, she gained deeper insights into the field of biophysics for the first time. She was immediately fascinated and decided to stick with it: "I'm just a curious person, and I'm not afraid of learning new things," she says in retrospect. This curiosity took her as far as the USA, where she got the chance to apply her knowledge in materials research as a postdoc in a research lab that dealt with artificial photosynthesis.

For Francesca Toma, this turned out to be the perfect topic. Professionally, she could contribute her previous experience, and in terms of content, she was attracted by the opportunity to contribute to the energy system of the future. "People have been working on artificial photosynthesis since the 1970s, back then it was still pure basic research," she says. The special challenge: "In every leaf of a tree, processes take place for which we need several steps to reproduce them. It starts with catalysis, then there's light absorption and all the interfaces that exist in between." Piece by piece, she bit into the subject and made important breakthroughs, for example, in the corrosion of the materials used. "The subject was considered terribly boring, but it's crucial when you're looking for solutions that are both durable and sustainable."

When the container arrived the other day, bringing her family's household belongings from California to Berlin, Francesca Toma finally realized that a new chapter was dawning after more than a decade. Her two daughters, who were born in the USA, have already found a place in a Berlin school, and her husband, also an Italian-American scientist now working in the private sector, has also come to Europe with her. And at work? When she took office, Francesca Toma renamed the "Institute of Photoelectrochemistry" the "Institute of Functional Materials for Sustainability". Her goal: To develop sustainable materials for a more climate-friendly world in the sense of a circular economy. In her institute, she now leads research in the field of material synthesis, characterization, and integration, focusing on various applications such as (photo)catalytic systems for hydrogen generation and carbon fixation, as well as the biological assessment of materials. She is firmly committed to enabling the sustainable development of our society.But first she gets to know Germany from the ground up: "Before, I was a tourist in Munich and Heidelberg," she says with a laugh, "now I travel regularly from Berlin, where my institute is based, to Hamburg, where my professorship is, to Geesthacht to Hereon's headquarters and to conferences in other cities I don't know yet." Always with her: Her mobile coffee machine, the little piece of home that always accompanies her on her travels around the world.

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