Germany’s Max Planck Society hosts small scientific conferences year-round at Schloss Ringberg in southern Bavaria. Credit: Schloss Ringberg; MPS.

You may find it surprising that the highlight of my recent vacation in Germany was not the Alpine landscape, Octoberfest, shopping or the opportunity to practice speaking German, but rather, the poster session.

The reason I was in Germany at all was to accompany my husband, Mark De Guire, to a workshop-like conference he coorganized with University of Stuttgart professor, Joachim Bill, titled “Generation of Inorganic Functional Materials Implementation of Biomineralization Principles.”

The conference was similar to a Gordon Conference—topically narrow, no concurrent sessions and held in a distraction–free setting, with plenty of built-in opportunities for the sequestered scientists to exchange ideas. In this case, the distraction-free setting was Schloss Ringberg, a genuine castle owned by the Max Planck Society, located in southern Bavaria near the resort town of Tegernsee. (The castle is located a few kilometers outside of the town and another two kilometers up a mountain, so the town is not a distraction to the scientists.)

The institutes of the Max Planck Society—Germany’s national research laboratory arm—sponsors conferences year-round at Ringberg, and this one was sponsored by the Stuttgart-based Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.

The conference was organized into four sessions: Biomineralization, Biomimetics, Characterization and properties, and Bioinspired structures and processes. The field of bioinspired or biomimetic synthesis has been around for awhile now and originated with scientists wondering whether they could duplicate the low temperature, solution-based synthesis of inorganic materials similar to the way sea creatures like snails, oysters, conch, etc. are able to synthesize calcium carbonate shells. These animals obviously have synthesis constraints—limited raw materials, aqueous environment, low temperatures—but their shells are hard, often organic-inorganic composite structures that can have directional morphologies, and some pretty impressive properties. Scientists realized that nature was showing them a pathway to low-temperature processing of ceramic materials with highly engineered structures, and therefore, properties.

This led to surface chemistry research that had ceramic materials scientists learning organic chemistry and surface science as they studied how to deposit and control self-assembled monolayers with fairly simple organic molecules. Over the last ten years, the Ringberg conferences have been a venue for exchanging ideas and advancing the art.

Entrance to Schloss Ringberg. Credit: ACerS.

Entrance to Schloss Ringberg. Credit: ACerS.

The art has become quite sophisticated. At the aforementioned poster session, held after dinner on one of the evenings, I met a graduate student from the University of Stuttgart named Nina, who is working with Bill on biomineralization synthesis of zinc oxide. In her research she is using tobacco viruses to functionalize surfaces to grow zinc oxide layers. The idea is to study whether field effect transistors can be grown this way, and indeed, she was able to demonstrate a field effect transition. The transition is not sharp enough to be useful, but the proof-of-concept is established. I was fascinated that she is using tobacco viruses, and she explained that the viruses provide a chemically complex surface layer that cannot be achieved through organic chemistry, which allows her to grow more complex structures. Her work seems to me to dovetail very naturally with a few of the grand challenges of ceramic science, in particular, the development of oxide electronics and engineering of interfaces.

Another graduate student I talked to, Andrea, is the student of University of Stuttgart professor, Zaklina Burghard, is working on layered composite materials for lithium-ion batteries. The work is in the beginning stages, but showing some very promising results.

Some surprising materials are being studied for synthesis by biological processes. For example, Cristina Giordano, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Berlin, is studying synthesis of metal nitrides and metal carbides by sol-gel routes and looking at applications that involve biological tissue replication. In her abstract, she provides the example of iron carbide, Fe3C (a constituent in cast irons). Her group has synthesized conducting, magnetic Fe3C leaf structures and demonstrated the feasibility of using them for water-splitting electrodes.

There were other examples of interesting applications on the program, such as a biomimetic approach to making cementitious materials, biomimetic control of the morphology and magnetic properties of magnetite nanoparticles, genetic engineering of bacterial nanomagnets, etc. Some of the scientists I talked to admit that some of their research is proof-of-concept, but I have no doubt that the applications will follow sooner rather than later. As ceramic researchers focus more of their attention on engineering surfaces, interfaces and edges, we may see growing interest in bioinspired and biomimetic methods for building engineered structures layer-by-layer.

The main staircase of Schloss Ringberg. The painting, by Attenhuber, depicts himself and Duke Leitpold. Credit: ACerS.

The main staircase of Schloss Ringberg. The painting, by Attenhuber, depicts himself and Duke Luitpold in the woods surrounding the castle. Tegernsee is in the background. Credit: ACerS.

In all, about 50 researchers and graduate students were there from all over the world (and me, the only accompanying spouse). The organizers are working on compiling a proceedings, and I will let you know when that becomes available.

The castle is the happy product of long friendship between Duke Luitpold in Bavaria and Friedrich Attenhuber, an architect, interior designer and artist. The men met while the Duke was a university student in the early 20th century, and together they became obsessed with the dream of building a castle, which was intended to become the new family seat. Luitpold was part of the Wittelsbach family, which claims several other members who were enamored of castle-building, the most famous of which is Ludwig II who built the iconic Neuschwanstein castle, also in Bavaria.

The site for the castle was chosen in 1911 and work commenced on it in 1913, with every detail supervised by Attenhuber. Attenhuber lived at the castle, supervising the design and construction of it until his death in 1947. He was a prolific painter, and many of his paintings, most of which depict Bavarian and hunting scenes, are in the castle today. Luitpold continued building the castle, but when he died in 1973 at age 82, it was still unfinished.

Luitpold, who had no direct heirs, made an agreement with the Max Planck Society to donate the castle on his death, and he also bequeathed to the Society the rest of his estate to finance the upkeep and preservation of the castle.

Today the various institutes of the Society fill the castle almost year-round with small, intimate science workshops. Luitpold and Attenhuber’s archaic obsession to build a castle, turned out to provide a setting for the best minds in the world to attack some of its most difficult problems. That is an impressive legacy to leave.