Single-atom engineering revolutionizes medicine, chemistry and energy - Catrin

Single-atom engineering revolutionizes medicine, chemistry and energy

New materials for energy acquisition and storage, nano-robots detecting or eliminating germs in the human body or substances accelerating and streamlining a number of chemical reactions in industrial production will be developed by a revolutionary method of single-atom engineering as part of the Technology Beyond Nanoscale (TECHSCALE) project. Palacký University (UP) has succeeded in the prestigious Excellent Research call in the Jan Amos Komenský Operational Programme, with partners from Charles University and CEITEC-VUT. The five-year research received funding of almost half a billion Czech koruna.

“Our goal is to develop nanomaterials and technologies that will contribute to solving the two current societal challenges, i.e. the acquisition and storage of renewable energy and the improvement of quality of life. Besides experts in materials research, representatives of social sciences are also involved in the project, who will assess the acceptance of new technologies in society. At the same time, they will also propose strategies for combating the so-called fake news, which could negatively influence the perception of new technologies,” explained the principal investigator of the project Michal Otyepka from the Czech Advanced Technology and Research Institute (CATRIN) of UP, who also has representatives of five Palacký University faculties on his team.

The researchers decided to exploit the huge potential of the single-atom engineering method, which allows to tune the properties of substances up to the level of individual atoms. Scientists are able to bring individual metal atoms into the structure of different materials, which can significantly improve their properties or even enable completely new applications. “It turns out that nanotechnologies are being surpassed by and are giving way to single-atom engineering. For example, catalysts prepared this way bring up to orders of magnitude higher reaction yields and at the same time replace the need for expensive or inaccessible raw materials such as gold or platinum. In the energy sector, we can increase manyfold the efficiency of acquiring green hydrogen by solar decomposition of water or ammonia. We also know that materials developed on the basis of atomic engineering can kill bacteria much more effectively than many antibiotics, while bacteria cannot develop resistance to these materials. The economic, ecological and health benefits are therefore enormous,” said Radek Zbořil from CATRIN, a pioneer of this method, whose team will focus especially on its use in the energy sector.

New types of catalysts and nano-robots for use in medicine

According to another key team member Jiří Čejka from the Faculty of Science of Charles University, catalysis is essential for sustainability, for example, in oil, natural gas or biomass processing, fuel, polymer, pharmaceutical production or environmental protection. “Within the TECHSCALE project, our main objective is to prepare new types of catalysts based on individual metal atoms, which we will place on various carriers, such as graphene or zeolites. We will examine these catalysts in various industrially important reactions to achieve an increase in process efficiency and a deeper understanding of the function of the catalyst and the mechanism of the reaction,” said Čejka.

The researchers also want to contribute to the early detection and treatment of diseases. “We will develop, atom by atom, unique nanorobots based on nanoarchitecture, which will have a specific design and will be able to detect very low concentrations of biomarkers, which can significantly improve the diagnosis of a number of diseases. In addition, these nanorobots will move autonomously in the human body and kill germs,” said Martin Pumera from CEITEC-VUT, clarifying the applications in medicine.

The unifying theme of the multidisciplinary project is to push the boundaries of the nanoworld and achieve precision in tuning properties up to the level of single atoms, but also to strive for a quick and safe implementation of the results into practice. “Already during the design phase, we will consider the safety of materials and possible social impacts. I believe that we will significantly contribute to the fight against antibiotic resistance, prepare high-efficiency sensors and develop new sustainable energy technologies. Single-atom engineering processes will bring environmental benefits as well as economic savings in a number of industrial areas. Last but not least, we will support the adoption of new technologies by both the professional and the general public,” concluded Otyepka.

Universities respond to societal change

Success in this prestigious call is appreciated by the leadership of Palacký University. “The fact that our scientists succeeded in it is a testament to the excellence of the research they are currently engaged in. We are all witnessing tremendous progress in many fields of human activity, yet for most of us the shift from nanotechnology to single-atom engineering is something from the field of science fiction. But who else than the university should look for new solutions to the problems faced by humanity? We are pleased not only with the cooperation with our partner workplaces in Prague and Brno, but also with the fact that this is a multidisciplinary research team, with members being from different Palacký University faculties,” said Jiří Stavovčík, Vice-Rector for International Relations.

Thanks to an increase in the budget of the Excellent Research call to 12.2 billion Czech koruna, a total of 26 projects were supported to strengthen the position of the Czech Republic in the European research area and increase the competitiveness of domestic research teams with those on a European and global level of excellence. TECHSCALE was awarded a second place in the overall competition.

“Universities and their research centres must react flexibly to the constant changes that the world and our society are facing. It is great that the OP JAK projects reflect the priority themes of digitization, robotization or climate or social change. Thus, the research funds provide practical starting points not only for individuals, but also for the whole society. In addition to these benefits, however, it is also necessary to emphasize the increase in competitiveness, which our scientists gain through their research not only in their field but also, through their results, bring to the whole Czech Republic,” said Professor Milena Králíčková, Rector of Charles University.

The development of nanomaterials is one of the areas that CEITEC BUT has been working on for a long time. “I am therefore proud that Martin Pumera and his team have joined the TECHSCALE project, which focuses not only on the scientific aspect of this area, but also on the social one. Today, science is not only about working in the laboratory, but also about communicating the results and discussing their social impact. I believe that Martin Pumera’s knowledge and experience, especially in the field of single-atomic engineering, will be a valuable contribution to the project,” concluded CEITEC BUT Director Radimír Vrba.

Information about the project is also available at

Project TECHSCALE (No. CZ.02.01.01/00/22_008/0004587) is financed by the MEYS OP JAC Excellent research programme, supported by ERDF/ESF.

Martina Šaradínová
Monika Klimparová
January 9, 2024