04 April 2023

Physicist Emma Björk got her first big research grant in 2021. The grant finances four years of her own passion project, and all of a sudden, she became established as a researcher. "My first thought was, what do I do now?"

Emma Björk works with PhD-student Valentina Guerrero Florez to answer how mesoporous materials are formed. Emma used the starting grant to hire Valentina.   Olov Planthaber

The Swedish Research Council (VR) is, most often, the only way in Sweden to get a starting grant for a researcher. That is the eye of the needle that the majority of Swedish researchers must pass through to get their own platform, their own project, to build a career as a researcher. Emma Björk passed that milestone in 2021.

I sent in my first application for a starting grant in 2016 and I think perseverance is an almost essential characteristic to get any big grant. Now, all of a sudden, I have an opportunity to stand on my own as a researcher with my own project and hire a PhD-student, she says. Photo credit Olov Planthaber

Understand and design pores

Photo credit Olov Planthaber In total, the grant is 4 million SEK, to be used for a four year long project. Emma Björks work is in materials science and the main focus of her research is mesoporous materials, materials with pores as small as 3 to 15 nanometers in size. The pores in the material gives it an enormous contact surface that can be used. Emma is investigating how these materials are formed to be able to control, for example, the pore size and particle shape.

Photo credit Olov Planthaber “Think of a sponge and compare it to a piece of wood. The sponge has a huge surface compared to the wood because it is so porous. When I understand how mesoporous materials are formed, I can design them for all kinds of applications”, she says.

An implant with a mesoporous surface can deliver pharmaceuticals to a patient, with increased precision. The material can also be used as a catalyst in chemical processes, meaning it can lower the cost of fuel cells. With mesoporous materials you can make catalysts from common elements that are as effective as ones made from precious metals to a much lower cost.

“The catalyst is half the cost of a fuel cell. Cheaper catalysts equals cheaper fuel cells, and also I work with easily available materials, like silicon and nickel. Precious metals are not only expensive, they are also rare”, she says.

The first step is done

Photo credit Olov Planthaber When Emma Björk received the money, the first and most pressing question was if she can afford to hire her own PhD-student. Compared to earlier in her career, time in the lab is down and the project needed someone to have time for experiments in the laboratory. So, she hired Valentina Guerrero Florez, the first PhD-student paid for by Emma Björks grant. It´s a tight budget, one million SEK per year, and it´s not enough to pay for Emmas own salary. The aim is to run her own project and keep getting new grants.

“The starting grant has only opened the door but I have to keep building and reach a critical mass, where the research keeps rolling. Valentina is a very important part of this, since my lab time is limited. My strategy is to use the grant as the core for what I want to build, my own research team. This mustn’t end after four years, but continue to grow and develop”, she says.

Keep the momentum going

So, the starting grant will be used as a springboard. Through Emma Björk and Valentina Guerrero Florez work, the plan is to move the understanding of how mesoporous materials are formed forward, to gain control over the material. When the foundation is laid, new designs, with a specific intent can be created, and they will not have to go by trial and error.

When the field is moved forward, it benefits many researchers and will show progression. If Emma Björk is successful, and the starting grant is managed well, there is a strong chance that she will get more grants and continue to grow her team. The research is already positioned for sustainable technologies and can Emma also expand the general benefit of mesoporous materials, there are even further possibilities for a continuation.

“We work with water cleaning, conversion of carbon dioxide, green energy and medical applications. Through collaborations with other research groups we hope to expand it even further.”

Photo credit Olov Planthaber In November 2022 Emma Björk received notification from the Swedish Energy Agency that they want to invest in her research, hence Emma received her second big grant. She can now afford to pay parts of her own salary and hire another PhD-student.

“So far, it´s going above expectations”, she says.

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