Department of Physical Chemistry

Institute of Chemistry, Faculty of Sci. & Techn., University of Debrecen

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Our university opened its gates as Hungarian Royal University in 1914 and - changing name and structure several times - has been functioning essentially continuously since then (1921: Tisza István Hungarian Royal University, after the former prime minister, István Tisza; 1949: Debrecen University of Arts and Sciences; 1952: Kossuth Lajos University, after the great 19th century politician, Lajos Kossuth; 2000: University of Debrecen; see more details here).

The Faculty of Science of the university (today it is the Faculty of Science and Technology) was formed in 1949. Lajos Imre, then professor of Bolyai University of Cluj (Kolozsvár), was assigned to organize the Department of Physical Chemistry.

Professor Imre, a former coworker of the Nobel-prize winner German chemist, Otto Hahn, worked in the field of surface chemistry in relation to the practical issues of radiochemistry. His research aimed at the recovery of uranium from waste rods of nuclear reactors. The new department was situated on the second floor of the Main Building occupying the place of the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences temporarily suspended that time.

Professor Imre had been the head of the department for nearly twenty years. He initiated the building of the Isotope Laboratory (inaugurated in 1960) in an isolated area nearby the Botanic Garden. With the resignation of Professor Imre (1968) the laboratory seceded from the department, and it became an independent unit headed by him until 1971. In 1972, the research group of colloid chemistry (predecessor of the Department of Colloid Chemistry) also moved to the Isotope Laboratory. Professor Imre died in 1974 at the age of 74. During the years the building of the Isotope Laboratory became outdated, and it was demolished in 2012. A new building, the "Palace of Science" has been built in its place in 2014. To commemorate Professor Imre, a plaque has been recently put up on the 2nd floor of the Chemistry Building, and the new Isotope Laboratory has been named after him.

In 1968, Professor Mihály T. Beck started a new era in the history of the department. He arrived from the József Attila University, Szeged, and headed the department for twenty-two years. In 1969, the department moved to the newly erected Chemistry Building. With the arrival of Professor Beck, new areas – coordination chemistry and liquid phase reaction kinetics – became the main focus of research interest. Soon, the research results led to a widespread national and international recognition and also to vivid connections: postdoctoral fellows and researchers visited the department from the UK, Bulgaria, Egypt, India and the USSR. The 3rd International Symposium on Coordination Chemistry (Debrecen, 1970) organized by Professor Beck and his colleagues became a great success.

Professor Beck also initiated new research in the field of aqueous organometallic catalysis leading to the formation of the Research Group on Homogeneous Catalysis and Reaction Mechanisms later on. Results of the department in the emerging new area of oscillating reactions and chemical waves were also acknowledged worldwide. In 1989, we organized the successful International Conference on the Dynamics of Exotic Phenomena in Chemistry (in Hajdúszoboszló), which gave a special opportunity for researchers from both sides of the "iron curtain" to meet. Today, nonlinear chemical dynamics is still an essential part of our departmental research profile.

Professor Beck also showed a great interest towards prebiotic chemistry, especially the formation of organic molecules from the "primordial soup" containing cyanide ions. This research led to the investigation of the photochemical decomposition of cyano complexes, which greatly contributed to the departmental application of modern numerical methods for reaction kinetics.

In the early 90's, research on carbonization and the formation of fullerenes by Beck and his coworkers resulted in the publication of some interesting and frequently cited papers.

Professor Beck strongly encouraged applied research, too. New methods have been developed and patents have been obtained in relation to, for example, improving the production and properties of tungsten wires applied in light bulbs, designing a new UV-dosimeter, producing new fertilizers with micronutrients, and homogeneous hydrogenation on industrial scale.

Professor Beck was very successful in teaching and coaching the next generation of professors and scientists employed today by the Institute of Chemistry. These include all later heads of Department (György Bazsa, Ferenc Joó, and Vilmos Gáspár), Gyula Rábai (director of the Institute of Chemistry between 2004 and 2010), István Bányai and Sándor Kéki (heads of the Department of Colloid and Environmental Chemistry and the Department of Applied Chemistry, respectively).

Professor György Bazsa headed the Department of Physical Chemistry for eight years starting from 1990. By that time, the departmental staff already consisted of highly qualified scientists who have grown to be capable of funding their own research – due also to the new granting systems. This also allowed the formation of new research groups - among them the largest one became the Homogeneous Catalysis Research Group established in 1995 by Ferenc Joó in cooperation with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

In the years of the deep structural reorganization of the whole Hungarian society following the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Professor Bazsa successfully reorganized the department to meet the many challenges of the new era but managed to conserve the values and unity of the department. The tasks of the head of the department have changed substantially as they shifted towards the general management and the organization of education. With great effort, Professor Bazsa and his colleagues translated the internationally accepted textbook of Physical Chemistry written by P. W. Atkins into Hungarian. This work greatly helped to standardize teaching physical chemistry at all Hungarian universities.

Between 1998 and 2011, the department was led by Professor Ferenc Joó. In this period, while preserving the diversity of the departmental research, the academic group started to flourish. It played a pioneering role in studying the catalytic modification of biological membranes and the homogeneous catalysis in two immiscible (liquid) phases. During these years, a great number of foreign scientists joined the department for shorter and longer periods supported by different national and international programs. The 1994 NATO Advanced Research Workshop titled "Aqueous Organometallic Chemistry and Catalysis" organized in Debrecen turned out to be a fruitful foundation of this vivid international interest.

Ferenc Joó also initiated the adoption of important aspects of structural and computational chemistry that were missing from the scientific scope of our department. He was among the founders of the X-ray Diffraction Laboratory in 1996, and his research group started the applied quantum chemistry calculations at the department. At the turn of the century, Professor Joó directed major structural changes in the educational system such as the introduction of the credit system, and, later on, the transition to the three-cycle system of qualifications (BSc, MSc, and PhD) corresponding to the Bologna process. In this framework, between 1997 and 2009 he was the leader of PhD Program in Chemistry. Since then the Program has been supervised by Vilmos Gáspár.

In 2011, Professor Vilmos Gáspár became the Head of the Department. His major goal is to preserve the well working structure of research and teaching despite the newly emerging, numerous difficulties. He encourages and helps his young colleagues in creating their own scientific profiles. In collaboration with the staff, he hopes to improve the educational capacity so that the department could cope with the demand of the growing number of students.

Debrecen, October 27, 2014

Dr. Vilmos Gáspár
Head of Department

Update (2017.03.22.): On September 1, 2016 the Department of Physical Chemistry and the Department of Colloid and Environmental Chemistry merged and formed a new Department of Physical Chemistry. The head of this new Department is Prof. Dr. István Fábián.

Dr. György Póta
Associate Professor, editor