The Catalyst


Leslaw Mleczko is Bayer’s catalysis specialist. As a key expert, he scours colleges and universities the world over for new developments that could be of interest to the group. And he keeps a lookout for new talent. In a way, he is like a catalyst. He triggers processes, monitors them for a while, and then, as fresh as ever, moves on.

Professor Leslaw Mleczko, a key expert in chemical and polymer processes, likes to listen and, when listening, looks attentively into the eyes of the speaker. Occasionally he will nod his head in agreement. When he does eventually say something, he invariably picks up the speaker’s line of conversation. Friendly, relaxed, focused. “That’s all part of finding the most capable people in process technology for Bayer,” he explains, adding, “just like laughter.” Laughter? “Most certainly,” he reaffirms and points out that an essential element in the evaluation is whether you can laugh together over the same things. All of that contributes to completing the picture of a potential employee. 

“Professor Mleczko is oneof the world’s foremost catalysis experts.”

Prof. Andrzej Gorak

Prorector Research, TU Dortmund

But it is curiosity that is of particular importance to him, as is long-term thinking. “Not in terms of planning a career but rather a view of the future with more of a personal focus.” One person wants to go abroad (“preferably Australia”), another would rather stay in Germany (“with family and friends”). There is no right or wrong here since both could make significant contributions toward the success of the company. More than anything, Mleczko sees the company’s working groups needing different temperaments and personalities if they are to push the envelope and be creative.

Mleczko searches the world over for suitable catalyst specialists for Bayer, using his numerous international contacts to professors. “After all, they know their students and send me their best.” What he modestly fails to mention is that, more importantly, the professors also know him – and his standards. And they are demanding. As he says, “I’m looking for really creative people.” Mleczko, who is originally from Poland, is well acquainted with the academic environment. He has been lecturing since 2002 at the Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany, and has been a visiting professor since 2008 at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. Mleczko considers his own life to have been “more or less a series of fortuitous coincidences.” After earning his doctorate with a thesis on a subject from process technology, he received an invitation to go to Germany. He was doing postdoc research at the University of Hanover when he received an offer from Toronto. But he turned it down and went instead to Bochum to the Ruhr-University, because he was enticed by the offer of heading the Catalytic Reaction Engineering Group. In 1996, he qualified as a university lecturer in reaction engineering. And one year later he joined Bayer. “Actually, I only wanted to stay one year,” he says and adds with a chuckle, “and now here I am, still here.” But this was no coincidence. There are a myriad of activities in the company that fascinate him. “They have developed many new processes and implemented them here. You don’t see that at universities,” he notes. A particularly positive aspect, he feels, is being able, thanks to his work in research, to maintain contact with universities and students, many of whom he has been able to lure into the company. He knows that “young people bring fresh ideas with them. That stimulates your own creative juices.” 

This is why he is held in such high esteem outside the company, too. “Professor Mleczko is one of the world’s foremost catalysis experts,” notes Prof. Andrzej Górak, Prorector Research at the Technical University Dortmund, which works closely with Bayer Technology Services. There is a simple reason why Mleczko’s expertise is in such demand in the chemical industry: catalytic processes are one of the key technologies. The majority of the roughly 25,000 processes that produce basic chemicals today are run exclusively with the aid of catalysts. And the experts are convinced catalysts can do far more than is known so far, for example, realizing the dream of converting the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into an economical chemical resource.

Key Technology

Around 90 percent of all chemical raw materials are produced with the aid of catalysts. Without them we would have neither fuel nor plastics, there would be no pharmaceuticals or pesticides and also no auxiliary materials for the electronics and semiconductor industries. Catalysts facilitate innumerable chemical reactions; many would be impossible without them. The expert selection of a catalyst has a major influence on the results of a reaction. This is the reason chemists strive to fine-tune these facilitators so that only the desired result is produced.

This, however, would require completely new catalysts, and to develop them, Mleczko emphasizes, you have to understand how they function. “That is why for the last couple of years we’ve been adopting a promising approach, away from the high-throughput screening processes toward using mathematical models as a basis.” He goes one step further, “We use all the analytical and mathematical methods that allow us an efficient development of a catalyst.” With a toolbox like this, they are well positioned to meet the challenges of the future – the issues of resources and climate change, for example.

There has already been some initial success. CO2 has been used in the production of polyols in a pilot plant in Leverkusen since 2011. Partnering this project are the energy provider RWE Power, the RWTH Aachen University, and the CAT Catalytic Center. The Bayer experts tested over 200 catalysts until they found a suitable one. The industrial production of raw materials for polyurethane using this unusual resource will begin at the end of 2015.

A second example of seeking to make use of this climate pollutant goes one step further. The initiative, CO2RRECT, founded in 2010, is taking the approach of storing surplus power from alternative energy sources. With the help of this power, hydrogen is produced from water. Together with CO2, with the aid of a catalyst, this can be converted into intermediates for polymers – either carbon monoxide or formic acid. RWE, Siemens, and a number of prominent institutions are contributing their expertise and experience to this project supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research Bayer Technology Services and the group headed by Leslaw Mleczko have the overall responsibility. They are developing catalysts designed to accelerate the reaction of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. “The research project is running superbly,” he says. But he cautions against any high hopes for success in the near future, “It’ll be many years before we see its technical implementation. Some time after 2020.”

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