Science was done in primitive conditions, says a 1956 graduate

6. 11. 2020

Our history spans more than 70 years. This year we are celebrating and we want to commemorate the beginnings of our university together with our graduates. One of the first graduates was Professor Karel Komers. An interview with Karel Komers was published in the latest issue of the University Journal.

He spent nearly 60 years of his professional life in laboratories. It was simply his love for chemistry. He is one of the first graduates. He completed his studies at the University of Chemical Technology in Pardubice in 1956. Karel Komers, a professor in physical chemistry worked on a number of research projects. The most successful projects focused on the production of biodiesel.

When did you last look in your student’s record book?

I opened it after many years because of the interview. It reminded me of a lot of things and also my failures.

Professor and failure? How does that go together?

I failed two exams. Mineralogy, especially because of the way it was taught and then a course called Occupational Safety and Fire Protection. This was a competition between ourselves to see who could get away with saying the biggest nonsense. I was asked about fire resistant coatings and I proposed a nitrocellulose paint, which is of course highly flammable. Naturally, I was thrown out the door. Then I apologized to the examiner and explained the reasons.

Why did you decide to get into chemistry?

I started flirting with the idea of studying chemistry in the last year of grammar school. We had a great chemistry teacher, Professor Vostřel. He was strict but taught us a lot. When I was graduating, the University of Chemistry and Technology (UCT) was opening up in Pardubice. My parents weren’t rich and couldn’t afford to pay my study in Prague, so that’s why I applied here.

Apparently, you applied the first year the university opened but were not accepted. Is that true?

Yes, I could have been the very first graduate. However, I was not accepted for “character” reasons. I was recommended to go into production for a year. I started in the Institute of Plastic Materials (IPM, today’s SYNPO – Synthetic Polymers, editor’s note). Eventually, this forced stay turned out to be a big plus. When I finally enrolled in UCT, my practical experience helped me a lot, this was a great advantage in the laboratory. However, the disadvantage was that I forgot to learn a bit. The first year of study was very difficult for me. However, during the second year I began to like chemistry and have enjoyed it ever since then.

What did classes look like then?

At that time the university was taking over the former technical school at Náměstí Čs. legií. Our lectures took place mainly at the “milling school” (now the Secondary Technical School of Food Processing and Services, opposite St. Bartholomew’s Church, editor’s note) That’s where we had our lecture room and labs. We were also faced with a lack of study resources as we had no textbooks, we mainly learned from handwritten notes in lectures and seminars. Although everything was complicated and challenging at the time, I was glad to study at that particular university. Of course, I wanted to finish my studies. I remember that of the 140 who enrolled, there were only 72 who finished. At that time, it was possible to retake an exam only once and in rare cases two times but that was at the discretion of the Rector. In the event of failure, you had to leave without mercy.

Do you remember any of the teachers?

The name associated with the milling school was Professor Syrový. He was the chief of the laboratories of analytical chemistry and taught us to weigh on analytical scales “on command”. Each of us had a pair of scales and he commanded: “Take the tweezers in your hand now!” And everybody had to do it at once. “Take the weight now...” It looked funny but soon we discovered when something was not done as required, it was impossible to weigh a sample to four decimal places in grams on the analytical scales which were used back then.

I have a feeling that many students today do not appreciate what they have at their disposal. We were grateful for any piece of scientific information. It’s hard to explain today the difficulties that the university faced during its development. Also, the steps that had to be taken to move the university to the current educational and research level. To make it a university with a good reputation.

When did you last visit the faculty?

It’s been about a month. I’m still cooperating with the Department of Biological and Biochemical Sciences, specifically with Professor Alexander Čegan. Together, we wrote a physical chemistry textbook for their specialization. I came up for advance copies of part two.

Are you still writing?

Not really but if you enjoy something, you want to do it as long as your health and circumstances allow. This is one of the ways to spend the time I’m left with (laughter).

So, you have never been bored by chemistry?

Definitely not. I’m keeping up to date with the developments at the faculty and I’m trying to stay in touch. Of course, I’m mostly interested in the work of my younger colleagues at the Department of Physical Chemistry, my home department. It is true that a lot of things have changed since I studied and worked here. Today, there are numerous possibilities, the faculty is all very modern and it is much easier to do science.

The previous political regime suppressed a lot of things. Is there anything that affected you personally?

In the academic year of 1968–69 I had a study visit to the Technical University of Munich. At that time, the Russians came to our country and when I returned, the period of normalization started. At that time, there were no members of the Communist Party in the department. As a result, we lost our specialization and there was no money for science and research. A good thing was that we had a joint specialization with the Department of Analytical Chemistry. I’m in love with analytical chemistry, I came to the department after graduation and worked there for three years. My first supervisor was Professor Antonín Tockstein who chose me as a graduate. Later, he was instrumental in building what is today’s Department of Physical Chemistry (DPC) as a long-standing head of the department. He gave very original lectures and I just loved it.

Did the occupation and normalization years affect research?

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was extremely difficult to get high-quality research instruments. Most of them were from Western countries. During many school years, we usually had no money. If there was something left at the end of the year, there was no time left to order the instruments. We often worked with very modest equipment. Today we laugh at it; in the past we had to do with an electromagnetic mixer and our heads. The situation changed only after 1989.

Before the Velvet Revolution, I worked as the deputy head of the department for several years after Professor Tockstein had left. The head at that time was a person who was appointed by the Communist Party whose specialization was different than physical chemistry. When I became the head of the department after 1989, in terms of science and development, I have to say that this was the toughest period for all teachers because the first thing we had to do was equip the department for scientific work.

But still you tried to do research with the modest equipment. What did you work on?

This was mostly imposed by circumstances. Regarding the fact that our equipment was poor-quality at the beginning, we had to change it quite often. Together with my colleagues we worked on six scientific and research tasks. We achieved the greatest success in biodiesel research. All of my research topics had a common feature: all of them investigated the kinetics and mechanisms of the process.

It was always very difficult to change the topic of science and research. First, you had to find out what other researchers had discovered. Then you needed equipment to objectively measure the properties of what you are studying. However, I like to recall my biodiesel research.

Concerning biodiesel, you worked in tandem with Associate Professor Skopal. Is that true?

Yes, together with Associate Professor Jaroslav Machek as well as the deceased Professor Josef Tichý. We were a good team of people and we had great results. We discovered and published the principles of the formation of biodiesel by reaction of rapeseed oil with methanol catalysed by potassium hydroxide. Also, we filed three patents, according to which biodiesel was produced for several years in six locations in the Czech Republic. In terms of technology, we collaborated with Associate Professor Koropecký from the Department of Automation and his private firm. Unfortunately, he has also passed away.

These were small production units, each producing around a thousand tons of biodiesel per year. Today, the production of biodiesel accounts for hundreds of thousands of tons per year. However, at that time it was a great success for us. It is difficult to discover something but it is even more difficult to put the result into practice.

Have you educated your followers?

Yes, I love to recall my doctoral students. Most of them are doing well in practice.

Were your students disciplined?

Some of them were, some of were not. However, during classes I always made sure discipline was maintained. Sometimes students were not interested in what I was teaching. So, I told them to go and do something else. 

What is your most beautiful memory of the university?

There are many of them. I was here for several decades… I like to remember the student years when we went to the dorms and had fun. Today, it seems like an oddity but we used to have military preparation. During our study, we went twice to a summer military camp in Červená Voda and Liberec. That saved us two years of military service and it’s also written in my student’s record book.

In 2018, you received the Silver Medal from the Dean of the Faculty of Chemical Technology. How important was this award to you?

To me this means that my work here made a difference and I really appreciate it.

“I hope the faculty will educate high-quality graduates because they are the ones who decide how chemistry will develop in the Czech Republic.”

Prof. Ing. Karel Komers, CSc. graduated from the University of Chemical Technology in Pardubice in 1956. His specialization was plastic technology. He was awarded CSc. in 1966. He became an associate professor in 1979 and has been professor since 2011. In scientific and research work, he has focused especially on the following areas: oxidation of aromatic amines; biochemical degradation of organic substances by activated sludge; biochemical reactions in the presence of redox mediators; catalytic re-esterification of vegetable oils and animal fats for the production of biodiesel; oxidation of glycerine-immobilized enzymes; enzymatic hydrolysis of acetylcholine and its in vitro inhibition.

This text can be found in the special 100th edition of the University Journal, in both printed and online form.

TEXT: Věra Přibylová/PHOTO: Milan Reinberk