Mária Kováčová and polymer composites based on graphene oxide

Polymer composites based on graphene oxide were prepared and investigated by Dr. Kováčová during her 17-month-long post-doc position at the Department of Physical Electronics. These composites will find applications as a material for water flutes but also as a structural material for aerospace.

7 Aug 2023 Tereza Schmidtová Vlasta Štěpánová

Mgr. Mária Kováčová, PhD. studied biology and chemistry at the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra (UKF), Slovakia. She pursued her Ph.D. studies at the Institute of Polymers of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. She came to the Department of Physical Electronics (DPE) as part of the Postdoc2MUNI project co-funded by the European Union. She spent more than a year in our reserch group working on the optimization of the preparation of graphene oxide-based polymer composite (GO).

Dr. Kováčová worked at the DPE from February 2022 until the end of June this year. In her project, she optimized the preparation of large GO and rGO (reduced graphene oxide) materials using plasma technologies and their polymer composites by different processing methods. Her objective was to prepare mechanically stable, durable polymer composites that are durable but remain electrically conductive.

For researching these materials based on GO and rGO, she collaborated with Dr. Richard Krumpolec from the Plasma Nanotechnologies and Bioapplications research group of the DPE. Dr. Krumpolec has long been involved in his research on the use of plasma for the preparation and modification of GO and rGO. You can read more about the innovative preparation method he and his colleagues developed in our article from last year here.

Dr. Kováčová used several types of plasma sources in her work, e.g., DCSBD (Diffuse Coplanar Surface Barrier Discharge), MSDBD (Multihollow Surface Dielectric Barrier Discharge), or blown arc discharge. By optimizing the process (changing the solvent, size, type, and concentration of GO flakes, etc.), she has achieved the preparation of larger samples that are usable in industrial applications. The main part of Dr. Kováčová's work was the polymer composites manufacture. "I prepared composites by various methods such as pressing, impregnation, electrostatic softening, etc. However, for each method, finding the optimal conditions for preparation was necessary, which was often challenging. At the same time, I used different polymer matrices, for example, PREPREG with epoxy and carbon fibers, PEEK (Polyetheretherketone), LDPE (Low-Densit Polyethylene), SIS (Styrene-Isoprene-Styrene), epoxies and others. In addition, I always tested the prepared composites, for example, by measuring the mechanical properties o XPS, FTIR, Raman or confocal, measuring contact angles, etc. The search for suitable combinations and conditions was very time and material-consuming," adds Dr. Kováčová.

In addition to the work on the project itself, she also collaborated with colleagues on other sub-scientific projects. She has been involved in preparing rGO/PEDOT, which are being tested as possible electrodes for solar cells, where this material can improve their efficiency. Composites of rGO with PEDOT are also interesting for their properties, such as flexible and stretchable heating elements. In addition to the above, she also worked on the synthesis and plasma treatment of hydrophobic carbon dots in toluene solution using MSDBD discharge to enhance their antibacterial efficacy. For example, their applications are as functional fillers in antibacterial catheters.

Dr. Kováčová has been very successful in her scientific career. In addition to her research achievements, she was also a finalist for the ESET Science Award in 2021 in the Outstanding Young Scientist under 35 category. ESET Science Award is an award for outstanding personalities in Slovak science and higher education. The article and the interview on this occasion with Dr. Kováčová can be read/played here. At the end of last year, Dr. Kováčová was also featured in Forbes magazine (article link here). During her professional career, however, she has not always been solely dedicated to scientific work. Read more about her life in the following interview.

How did you get into science?

My interest in science started in high school. We had an excellent biology and chemistry teacher who knew how to spark interest. So, I considered whether to study medicine or biology and chemistry. In the end, I chose to study biology and chemistry. This field is rich in information from different scientific directions, and I would have chosen the same even now.

What were your plans after you finished your master's degree? Were post-graduate studies the obvious choice for you?

Not at all. I got into management after graduation. But I was still close to science. I worked at the Slovak Academy of Sciences for technology transfer and intellectual property protection. I gained valuable experience in cooperation between scientists and industrial partners.

But I missed working in a laboratory. After about two years, I started my Ph.D. studies at the Institute of Polymers of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. I knew the institute's environment, so it was a peaceful change. As part of my doctoral studies, I also did internships abroad. I went several times to the Centre for Polymer Systems at Tomas Bata University in Zlín and also to Vinča Institute of Nuclear Science, University of Belgrade in Serbia.

Did you enjoy physics in high school? When did you start working with physicists?

I didn't enjoy physics in high school, at all😊. However, in university, we had a lot of physics courses that managed to engage me. I even chose a physics state exam question. I was probably the only one to do so😊. During my Ph.D., I worked with physicists almost daily, and the topic of my studies was also largely physics-based. These disciplines are so intertwined that you cannot strictly separate them.

Why did you choose our department for your post-doc? What was the aim of your project?

The PNB research group at the DPE at MUNI has been a long-standing research partner of the Institute of Polymers of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, v.v.i. in Bratislava. Thanks to this close cooperation, I learned about an open post-doc position. I applied, came for an official interview, and was eventually hired. I had the advantage of previous experience producing GO, its chemical reduction, and preparing electrically conductive polymer composites. At Bratislava, I also worked with DCSBD plasma source, so the post-doc position was, in a way, a continuation of my previous work.

Did you meet your goals? Are you satisfied with the outcomes of your project?

The results are beyond my expectations. It was indeed a fruitful period. I have already published the results in a peer-reviewed article; the second one is currently "under review." I also presented the results in an invited talk at an international conference (NANOMAT2022) and three public lectures at MUNI.

How was it working at the DPE, and what was the team like?

The collective was terrific! Everyone here has been friendly and helpful to me, and we will definitely keep in touch, and so far, we are😊. I have had a good time working, generally. If I needed a measurement, help, or anything else, there was always a way and, most importantly, a quick resolution. Additionally, I appreciated the team building, development, and support from the research team leaders.

What do you find most interesting about your research? What did you enjoy the most?

Everything 😊. Researching GO/rGO papers and their composites is fascinating. From a preparation perspective, graphene's incredibly swift DCSBD plasma reduction is impressive. Having worked on chemical reduction, I know how long it takes and what yields are usually obtained. Plasma is an unbeatably efficient tool, and it's nice visually, too! I shouldn't forget that working with plasma sources and their extensive range of applications is captivating.

What applications does your research have? What future do you see for it?

The future is always open. But probably the most immediate application in the near future is water filters for capturing various pollutants in water. Some testing has already taken place, and more samples are waiting to be tested. Another application is, for example, to use the material as a structural element in airplanes so that lightning strikes do not damage them and so on. In my opinion, the material properties of GO and rGO composites and the simplicity of their preparation using plasma make them the ideal material, and there are no limits to their applications. You just have to try them out.

What do you plan to do after the post-doc? Will you go abroad again, or will you be back home for a while?

I'm back to work at UP SAV and continuing my work with carbon quantum dots, for which we have several international projects. I will only be in Bratislava now. I've done enough traveling for a while. I've got my projects going and am also looking to start building my own team. Among other things, I'd like to start a family, so I'll quit traveling for now😊.

How did you manage traveling between Brno and Bratislava? How often did you go back and forth?

How did I manage? It was definitely very challenging. Every day I traveled to Brno and back to Slovakia. I took my sleep deprivation to a new level. Partly my hobbies and free time suffered, but it was definitely worth the rich experience and the many great people I met here. 

Thanks for the interview and we wish you all the best.

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