From 1905 to 1908, Volmer studied chemistry at the Philipps University of Marburg. After that, he went to the University of Leipzig, where he was awarded a doctorate in 1910, based on his work on photochemical reactions in high vacuums. He became an assistant lecturer at Leipzig in 1912, and after completion of his Habilitation there in 1913, he became a Privatdozent at the University.
In 1916, Volmer went to work on military-related research at the Physical Chemistry Institute of the Friedrich-Wilhelms University (today the Humboldt University of Berlin). From 1918 to 1920, he conducted research in industry at the Auergesellschaft in Berlin. In 1919, he invented the mercury steam ejector, and he published a paper, with Otto Stern which resulted in the attribution of the Stern–Volmer equation and constant. Also attributed from his work during this time is the Volmer isotherm.
Volmer, Manfred von Ardenne, Director of his private laboratory Forschungslaboratoriums für Elektronenphysik, Gustav Hertz, Nobel Laureate and Director of Research Laboratory II at Siemens, and Peter Adolf Thiessen, ordinarius professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin and Director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institut für physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie (KWIPC) in Berlin-Dahlem, had made a pact. The pact was a pledge that whoever first made contact with the Russians would speak for the rest. The objectives of their pact were threefold: (1) Prevent plunder of their institutes, (2) Continue their work with minimal interruption, and (3) Protect themselves from prosecution for any political acts of the past. Before the end of World War II, Thiessen, a member of the Nazi Party, had Communist contacts. On 27 April 1945, Thiessen arrived at von Ardenne’s institute in an armored vehicle with a major of the Soviet Army, who was also a leading Soviet Chemist. All four of the pact members were taken to the Soviet Union. Hertz was made head of Institute G, in Agudseri (Agudzery), about 10 km southeast of Sukhumi and a suburb of Gul’rips (Gulrip’shi); Volmer was initially assigned to Hertz’s institute. Topics assigned to Gustav Hertz’s Institute G included: (1) Separation of isotopes by diffusion in a flow of inert gases, for which Gustav Hertz was the leader, (2) Development of a condensation pump, for which Justus Mühlenpfordt was the leader, (3) Design and build a mass spectrometer for determining the isotopic composition of uranium, for which Werner Schütze was the leader, (4) Development of frameless (ceramic) diffusion partitions for filters, for which Reinhold Reichmann was the leader, and (5) Development of a theory of stability and control of a diffusion cascade, for which Heinz Barwich was the leader; Barwich had been deputy to Hertz at Siemens. Von Ardenne was made head of Institute A, in Sinop, a suburb of Sukhumi.
Late in January 1946, Volmer was assigned to the Nauchno-Issledovatel’skij Institut-9 (NII-9, Scientific Research Institute No. 9), in Moscow. Volmer was given a design bureau to work on the production of heavy water; Robert Döpel also worked at NII-9. Volmer’s group with Victor Bayerl, a physical Chemist and Gustav Richter a Physicist, was under Alexander Mikailovich Rosen, and they designed a heavy water production process and facility based on the counterflow of ammonia. The installation was constructed at Norilsk and completed in 1948, after which Volmer’s organization was transferred to Zinaida Yershova’s group, which worked on plutonium extraction from fission products.
In March 1955, Volmer returned to East Germany. He received the Soviet Union’s national prize, first class, Hervorragender Wissenschaftler des Volkes (Outstanding Scientist of the People). On 1 May 1955, he became an ordinarius professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin. On 10 November 1955, became a member of the Wissenschaftlichen Rates für die friedliche Anwendung der Atomenergie of the Council of Ministers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). From 8 December 1955 to 1959, he became President of the German Academy of Sciences, after which he was vice-president until 1961. From 27 August 1957, he became an initial member of the Forschungsrat of the GDR.
At the Technical University of Berlin, where Volmer worked for so many years, the Max Volmer Laboratory for Biophysical Chemistry was named in his honor. Also in Volmer’s honor, a street was named Volmerstrasse in Berlin-Adlershof, Potsdam, and Hilden.