When Erasmus opens doors
Although he has yet to receive his certificate, Ayoub Laghrissi can soon call himself a doctor. He wrote his thesis at the Institute of Material and Surface Technology at the University of Applied Sciences. “I defended it in February. I still don’t have the right to call myself a doctor, as I have not yet received my final certificate. But If anyone called me a doctor, that would be okay,” he jokes. The former Erasmus student from the Université Mohammed V de Rabat came to Kiel for his Master’s (studies) in 2016 via the Erasmus+ International program that allows for an exchange beyond the European borders. This project is targeted at students in the higher stages of their education, either in their Master’s or right after their Master’s degree, or if they are looking to carry out doctoral/post-graduate work.
“A team from the FH came to my university, presented the projects and then selected a few students to take part in the exchange,” Ayoub says. In June 2016, he first came to Germany. The plan was to stay for a year, then to go back to Morocco or somewhere else. “But in that year, Professor Es-Souni said I could finish my PhD in Germany, if I wanted to,” he remembers. Prof. Es-Souni arranged for Ayoub to join a project and took care of financing it.
“I was doing my PhD and at the same time I was working as a Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter for the Forschungs- and Entwicklungs-GmbH.” This work was also international. “I was working on a project between Kiel in Germany and Sønderborg in Denmark.” This was to finance his life in Kiel, while simultaneously working on his PhD. “To me, this offer was really nice. So I stayed in Kiel and started working on this project and on my thesis.”
When asked about the content of his thesis, Ayoub gets very excited. “It was about the synthesis of noble metal catalysts, so-called nano-catalysts, in the application of fuel to produce hydrogen and then source clean energy from said hydrogen.” The demand for energy is high and will likely rise. “Everyone is trying to change how we can produce energy from hydrogen.” This substance, however, is somewhat rare. “Pure hydrogen is not everywhere. But in compounds, it is in water, in methanol, or formic acid.” Where to find it is easy. But to access the energy within the hydrogen is the tricky part. “Converting the chemical energy from the hydrogen into electrical energy,” is the answer. This can be done via electrochemistry. And while it sounds easy on paper, it is not so easy in reality. “This process requires electrodes that are based on noble metals. They are really expensive,” he explains. “They are called noble for something.” He laughs. Noble could mean expensive. In chemical terms, it means something else; they are slow to react or become oxidized. “The idea of my thesis is to think of some strategies to reduce the content of noble metals. I am using nano-structures to reduce the load of costly materials. You could also try to combine noble metals with cheaper metals. It would also be possible to recreate the structure of noble metals with nanodes or nanotubes.”
Also he focused on the source of hydrogen. “Water is everywhere, and for this use you can use seawater, not only the water we drink.” To produce hydrogen, the two components of the water molecule need to be split. This has been a tried-and-tested method for a long time. “But the thing is efficiency. The efficiency of current apparatuses to do that is not that high and the materials used cost a lot.” To solve this, he tried to use electrochemistry.
Since a PhD at a University of Applied Sciences is not possible without a university, he collaborated with Professor Faupel from the Christian-Albrechts-University in Kiel. “All the work was done in the FH with Professor Es-Souni. The final defence was done by Prof. Faupel”, Ayoub explains. “This system is unique to Germany”, he finds.
After almost five years in Germany, Ayoub noticed a lot of differences in the way university and studies work in Germany compared to his university in Rabat, the capitol of Morocco. “It’s completely different,” he sums up: “In Germany, students attend lectures, ask questions and have a discussion with the professor. But they don’t write much down.” This is the opposite to his experience in Morocco. Losing focus during a lecture was detrimental. “You wrote down everything the professor said and understanding is to be done after the lecture,” he explains. “If you wanted to do both, understanding and writing, you would need a lot of focus.” Another big difference lays in the way research is conducted. “Unfortunately, in Morocco, the government does not provide a lot of money for research. There aren’t a lot of facilities for research.” Although this has recently changed, there are still not enough possibilities to facilitate all the PhD students. Therefore, a lot of research is conducted theoretically. “You see, I am working in material science. I need to prepare things, I need to test them, I need to change things up and so on.” Doing this only in simulations can be educational, but in this field it is not optimal, he claims.
After his PhD, he is far from finished. His next project is already in progress. “I am now a post-doc in Sønderborg.” After having worked on a project there during his PhD, he knew some people there. “It’s not the same project I worked on, but that helped me. There was an offer for a really nice research project in Nanophysics.” For the next two years, he will be researching the use of nano-trains to deliver drugs to a specific target in the human body. Another door that was – in some ways – opened by Erasmus.