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Normally, LEDs can be either energy-efficient or have a better colour rendering. These two requirements, both of which one would of course always like to fulfill, have always been mutually exclusive. That is, until Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schnick of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München found ways to solve this problem. That’s exactly why he has been awarded the Liebig commemorative medal. “The award is a great honor for our – one can almost say – life’s work”, Schnick says. “And for the work of many doctoral students, who are naturally all very enthusiastic about coming out in public.”

The Liebig-Denkmünze commemorates the chemist Justus von Liebig and has been awarded to researchers at irregular intervals by the German Chemical Society (GDCh) since 1903. This year, Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schnick of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München will receive the prize for his groundbreaking work in the synthesis of inorganic materials with p-block elements. Schnick and his team have set new standards in the field of fluorescent technologies with their research, because their research results have led to the main components for warm-white high-performance LEDs and LED light sources in the automotive industry, among other things.

For the future, this means that light sources will not only become brighter but also more energy-efficient. “You need these LEDs to be able to produce all other colours from the blue LEDs on which these lamps are based,” explains Schnick, who also received Germany’s highest award for scientists, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG) back in 1997. “If you have a desk lamp, you don’t want it to glow blue. But one starts from these blue lamps because blue light is the shortest and most energetic light we have in the visible spectrum.” But it is not possible to produce all other wavelengths from high-energy light with such luminescent materials, he emphasizes.

Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schnick

“That’s why Shuji Nakamura’s discovery of blue light-emitting diodes, which won the Nobel Prize in Physics a few years ago, was instrumental in advancing this field,” said Schnick. “Our luminescent materials make them more energy-efficient and at the same time achieve much better colour rendering. Normally these two requirements, both of which one would of course always like to fulfil, are mutually exclusive. Either the lamps are very energy efficient and you have a not so good colour rendering or vice versa. We were able to show that this can be achieved much better with our connections than we had previously hoped.”

And like many great discoveries, Schnick and his team came to the rescue of ‘Commissioner Chance’. “We have entered new fields in chemistry, especially synthetically, made new classes of compounds in p-block element compounds, especially with nitrogen nitrides. By chance, it turned out that they can be doped with europium, resulting in extremely efficient phosphors that are used in many LED applications today, such as mobile phones, turn signals, warm white lamps and so on.” For almost 17 years there has been a cooperation with a major LED manufacturer that “translates our basic science into products, so to speak.”

The Liebig commemorative medal has a very special meaning for him, Schnick explains. And that’s not only because of the great honor for him and his team: “The Justus Liebig commemorative coin is also important to me because Justus Liebig worked at the University of Munich. He was the best-known German chemist before the Nobel Prize was introduced. His direct successor here in Munich [Adolf von Baeyer, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry 1905, editor’s note] had the Nobel Prize. So that’s a great thing. Our chemistry still builds directly on what Liebig has done.” However, this has nothing to do with the LEDs, says Schnick. “We also do other basic research. LED is always a very spectacular application, but that’s not all our research.”

Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schnick was born in Hanover in 1957 and completed his studies of chemistry at the University of Hanover in 1986 with a doctorate. After completing his habilitation in inorganic chemistry at the University of Bonn, he took up a professorship in inorganic chemistry at the University of Bayreuth in 1993. Schnick has been Professor of Inorganic Solid State Chemistry at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich since 1998. His research focuses on inorganic solid-state chemistry and materials research. He develops complex nitrides of main group elements, such as carbon, silicon or phosphorus, in combination with alkali and alkaline earth metals, rare earth metals and hydrogen. Schnick was awarded the Otto Klung Prize of Freie Universität Berlin, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Wilhelm Klemm Prize of the GDCh for his fundamental scientific achievements. He was also elected to the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina.

The award ceremony of the Liebig commemorative medal will take place on 17 September as part of the GDCh festival meeting, which will be opened by GDCh President Dr. Matthias Urmann. After the award ceremony, the prizewinner will talk about “Explorative basic research and industrial application – contradiction or desirable consequence?”