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I like to find solutions for actual use

Student Vojtěch Kundrát won in the competition For Water, organized by Nadace Partnerství.

Vojtěch Kundrát, a student at the MU Faculty of Science, was already impressing as a chemist when he was at secondary school. His accolades include the Prize of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic, victory in the Chemistry section of the Česká hlavička competition and an award for Talent of the Year in a Ministry of the Environment competition. His most recent triumph was in March this year, in the project For Water, organized by Nadace Partnerství and the Nestlé company.

You won the competition for your work on biodegradable nanofibre filters created from renewable sources for the molecular filtration of wastewater. What's behind it?
I work on the creation of filters from a substance called polyhydroxybutyrate. This polymer is able to form bacteria from burned cooking oil, for instance. The filter should be created from the nanofibres of this substance and then be capable of capturing bacteria or even molecules. In this way it would be possible to remove from water things such as residues of hormonal contraception and pesticides. The main advantage of this substance is that it is biodegradable, meaning that it decomposes naturally in a relatively short time.

Have you solved one of the more pressing problems of water purification, then?
Not at all – the project as a whole is still at the ideas phase. The polymer I'm considering does not yet have the properties required for its use in the creation of an applicable filter. But I've succeeded in electrospinning it, which is crucial for further progress. At the moment I'm making chemical modifications in an attempt to increase its elasticity, stability and solubility, properties that are important not least for its ecological and cheap use in industry.

Do you sit in your laboratory making random attempts to modify the substance?
The basis of all work is research in literature: I need to establish what others have done. After that, of course, I test various modifications. When, for instance, I tried to shape one structural part of the polymer, I discovered that the substance didn't hold together very well. Now I'm trying to chlorinate the material, which presents me with another problem – it is not stable, and so far it has always broken down into oil. But I hope that by the time I complete my Bachelor's thesis, which I'm doing at the Department of Chemistry of the MU Faculty of Science and also under the Materials Research Centre of the Brno University of Technology, I'll have different results. (He laughs.)

So far most of your work has centred on the environment. Are you attracted by biochemistry only or would you like to try other areas of this science?
Fundamentally I'm interested in chemism, i.e. the chemical side of processes and substances, their reactions and synthesis, and above all the possibility of creating something with a practical application. That is an important condition. You might invent something fantastic that is 100% effective, but if it is expensive it will find no practical use. That's why I like to find solutions that can be applied.

So after your studies you intend to practise?
I've already tried working for a private company. While I was at secondary school I set problems for various competitions testing pupils' knowledge, thanks to which I got to know the head of a research firm, who offered me an internship and the chance to work on a project within the Vocational Activities in Secondary Schools programme. I ended up working there intensively for four months, during which I had an individual study plan. This gave me a very good foundation in the practical skills of analytical chemistry. But as I'm only in the second year of my studies, such questions about my future are perhaps premature. Still, I have the feeling I'd prefer to work as a scientist and stay in academe.

The period you spent working in a private laboratory also saw you produce the work that brought you acclaim. You developed a substance that can be used as an anti-malarial. Certain media have referred to you as a 'wonder-chemist' and predicted that one day you will receive a Nobel Prize. How do you live with such an obligation?
I must emphasize that it is absolutely not the case that I discovered a drug for the treatment of malaria. All I did was use traditional methods to produce a new substance that has been effective in biological tests to counter malaria. I'm no kind of 'wonder-scientist'; I'm in the second year of a Bachelor's degree and I'm on the outside of the world of science, looking in.

Have you looked into how science is conducted abroad?
I spent two months at Washington University in Seattle under Professor Frank Tureček, a world expert in the field of mass spectrometry. I hope to gain more experience abroad. I have a bit of a problem in that I want to pursue everything that inspires me, even though I know that it will be necessary for me to have only one in-depth specialization.