The HZG Molecule Tailor: Alberto Tena
"Even small changes can be effective"
Photo: HZG/Christian Schmid, Illustration: Luca Candotti
Alberto Tena's working realm is at the molecular level. The young chemist feels good here.
Alberto Tena’s working realm is at the molecular level. The young chemist feels good here and it is here that he has been making important contributions to the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG) since 2014. These contributions lie in the production of tailor-made polymers for complex synthetic membranes. It is Tena’s objective to separate undesirable materials. His area of expertise concerns polymers for gas separation.
Alberto Tena might be in the mood for a party right now. Together with a group of colleagues, the 32-year-old submitted his ﬁrst patent a few weeks ago. Isn’t it a reason to be proud? “Oh, not really worth talking about,” he says, fending off the question with a wave of his hand. “It‘s basically not much different than a scientiﬁc publication.” There’s a brief pause, then he adds, “I’m very self-critical. I still need a bit of time to really feel proud of myself.”
Regular publications, a long list of scientiﬁc lectures given at national and international conferences as well as research visits ﬁnanced through grants all adorn his professional record. Tena has worked at the ‘European Synchrotron Radiation Facility’, a multi-national large-scale research establishment located in Grenoble, France. His passion for science also led him temporarily to Texas, Bologna and Alicante.
His current stop: Geesthacht. Here the young scientist works in the Department of Polymer Synthesis at the Institute of Polymer Research. “I also had the chance to go to the United States or to England,“ he says.
"I decided in favour of the HZG because it is internationally distinguished in membrane research. I also find it exciting that the Institute of Polymer Research covers the entire production chain - from the basic research to the creation of prototypes."
Tena had discovered the Geesthacht research centre through scientiﬁc HZG publications. “The research community involved with membrane production is manageable,” he says. “Here,” he adds, “everyone knows what the other scientists are working on.”
The HZG also knew about Alberto Tena and his scientiﬁc background. “The HZG wanted me because my work involves polyimides,” he explains. Polyimides are speciﬁc polymers, which are particularly suitable for gas separation processes. These properties were also instrumental for Alberto Tena in his patent submission. For that work, the young chemist resorted to a special form of polyimides that are able to transform into a completely new compound, polybenzoxazole, when utilising an additional temperature treatment. It is ideal for separating a variety of gases.
“One disadvantage is that the membrane becomes brittle and breaks easily. Apart from that, very high temperatures are necessary,” Tena explains.
The aim of the HZG scientists was therefore to reduce these temperatures while also maintaining or improving the excellent separation properties. Tena and his colleagues rose to the challenge: they altered the chemical structure, experimented with various temperatures and adjusted the production parameters. The outcome was astounding. Tena says,
“The results were really good in just the second test.”
Tena is a realist and knows it will be some time before there’s a breakthrough. He adds, “Now it’s all about understanding the processes and continuing to improve them.”
He is content with his life in Geesthacht. His colleagues are friendly and he’s learning a lot. The Germans warmly welcomed him. “As a Spaniard,” he says, “I always have a sense that they associate me a bit with their vacations, sunshine and fun. I’ve found a really nice group of young people here.” They all come from different countries and are employed at the HZG as doctoral candidates or post-doctorates. They meet during the weekends for various activities. They go out to eat, make daytrips, absorb the Hamburg nightlife, watch movies, explore cities - the list is long. “I‘m not bored,” Tena declares.
But there is a downside to his life: his wife is a post-doctorate in Madrid. If time permits, the 32-year-old hops on a plane and ﬂies to Spain every two months or so. “We also talk via internet a lot,” Tena says. They met during their school days and they were in the same class, but it took a while until they clicked. “I can make good decisions very quickly in the professional realm, but I sometimes need more time in private matters,“ he explains, thoughtfully stroking his designer stubble, “I’m really rather more of an analytical person.”
“Of course,” he says, “it would be great if my partner and I could live in the same city.” The young Spaniard dreams of a family and a small house in the long-term, adding, “Houses in Spain are unaffordable.” In the professional realm, he is striving for more responsibility as he looks to the future, perhaps in the form of his own research group. “To prove myself in such a capacity, yeah, I think I’d be proud of that,” Tena says. By that time he will have tailored one or two garments of molecules.
Author: Vanessa Barth
Portrait from in2science #2 (July 2015)