European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a Starting Grant of 1.75 million Euros to Dr. Sebastian Öner

November 25, 2022

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a Starting Grant of 1.75 million Euros to Dr. Sebastian Öner, group leader at the Interface Science Department of the Fritz Haber Institute. Dr. Öner’s research aims at sensing and controlling ions at liquid-solid and vapor-solid interfaces that are broadly relevant across many scientific domains, including electro-, thermal- and biochemistry. With the ERC grant ORION, Dr. Öner’s group will develop a new electrochemical scanning probe microscopy that enables spatial control over the free energy of interfacial ions, such as protons (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-) during interfacial water dissociation (H2O-> H+ + OH-).

Ionic processes at the interface between two dissimilar liquid, vapor or solid phases are omnipresent in nature and are even implied in the evolution of life itself. Life likely emerged at hydrothermal vents, that continuously emitted alkaline water into a CO2-rich and, thus, slightly acidic ocean, separated only by a thin, micro-porous metal oxide barrier. A continuous and directed flux of H+ across this inorganic membrane caused a spatially confined, interfacial reaction zone, which was the pre-requisite for the reduction of the ocean’s dissolved CO2 into longer hydrocarbon molecules and, eventually, the evolution of complex molecular machines. 

Such confined interfacial reaction zones and their concomitant interfacial ionic processes are not limited to hydrothermal vents or subsequently evolved biochemical membranes, but they extend all the way into thermal- and, in particular, electrochemistry. For the latter, a prototypical example is interfacial water dissociation (H2O -> H+ + OH-), which is always required when evolving green hydrogen at an electrocatalyst surface in alkaline conditions, i.e. when the needed H+ are sourced from interfacial H2O molecules directly. During that process, OH- are generated and need to be solvated in the bulk of the electrolyte, which involves the reorientation of H2O dipoles around the charged OH-. However, interfacial H2O ordering due to interfacial electrostatics might hinder the required reorientation, resulting in an energetic barrier that increases the energetic expenditure of producing green hydrogen.

Whether electrocatalysts generating green hydrogen via interfacial water dissociation or enzymes synthesizing ATP by tapping into interfacial proton gradients, interfacial ionic processes at reactive interfaces are omnipresent in nature and our technologies. However, compared to our far evolved ability to study solid states, electronic transport and reactivity, our understanding and technical capabilities to study interfacial ionics at reactive interfaces are lacking behind. This is in part due to the great challenge of controlling the free energy of individual ions directly and spatially resolved.

With the ERC Starting Grant Operando Interfacial Ionics, ORION, Dr. Öner aims at developing a new scanning probe microscopy technique that controls the free energy of specific ions with microscopic precision. This new technique would enable electrochemical control and spatial resolution of key interfacial ionics, not only in electrochemistry, but also for ion transport in solid-state electrochemical systems, (de)hydrogenation in organic chemistry, enzyme function, proton gradients and even action potentials in biochemistry.

Originally from Berlin, Dr. Öner left the city in 2006 to study physics at the University of Konstanz and conduct research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US (2009). In 2012, he moved on to the FOM Institute AMOLF, Amsterdam, for his PhD focusing on next generation (nano)photovoltaics. After his PhD, Sebastian was searching for a new field that combines scientific challenges with practical relevance for our energy transition. This led him to conduct his postdoctoral studies in the field of electrochemistry at the University of Oregon, US, in part supported by a DFG postdoctoral fellowship (2017-2020). In the fall of 2020 and eight years after leaving Germany, Dr. Öner returned to Berlin and joined Prof. Roldán Cuenya’s Interface Science Department as a postdoctoral fellow. Since the beginning of 2022, Dr. Öner is an FHI group leader focusing on interfacial ionic processes in electrochemistry and electrocatalysis.
The European Research Council awards the prestigious Starting Grants to young researchers to foster their independent scientific careers and support ground breaking research. To that end, the researchers have to propose a high-risk, yet, feasible research project spanning five years that has the potential to open up new scientific frontiers. Conversely, the competitive review process is focused on the PI’s ability for creative independent thinking, to conduct non-incremental, ground-breaking research and the technical expertise and soundness of the proposed work. In this funding round, the ERC more than 3000 applications, of which 408 were selected for funding.

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