Utrecht University is getting a new transmission electron microscope, which will be one of the most comprehensive electron microscopes for materials studies in the Netherlands, and one of the best in the world. Researchers will be able to use the microscope to study materials, nanoparticles, and 2D materials such as graphene with a resolution of a single atom. MCEC researcher Marijn van Huis explains more about this new addition on the website of Utrecht University: “With the new microscope, we can not only look at atoms, but also at the electrons surrounding them. That way, we can also see if the atoms carry an electric charge, and whether they are in an excited state. That’s important for the study of catalysts, for example, in which the atom’s charge determines whether it is catalytically active. With this technology, we can see where the catalytically active atoms are located in the material, and we can study how to activate them.”
It is suddenly made possible for scientists all around the world to investigate the relationship between the structure and function of molecules during a chemical reaction. In Nature Protocols, Katinka Wondergem (MCEC linked PhD), Bert Weckhuysen and other chemists of Utrecht University, and chemists of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK, are publishing a detailed protocol for tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy as an analytical technique. In another journal, they are describing a technique to produce stable probes for such measurements.
Interview with Michael Jenks , second-phase MCEC PhD at Utrecht University
In 2017, MCEC was granted the Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND; a grant from the European Research Council which is designed to stimulate excellence in researchers’ training, mobility and career development. The grant, with a value of 1.7 million euros, will be deployed to attract and involve more international students to and in our research center. Already 19 international talents have been selected. One of them is Michael Jenks (25) who turned out to be exactly the right candidate for the project ‘Catalytic Conversion of Municipal Waste’.
Michael: “I grew up on the quiet side of an island off the coast of Scotland; the Isle of Arran. My primary school – twenty-two pupils in total – got its energy from its own wind turbine. It wasn’t until I visited a city for the first time, that I realised that all that ‘greenness’ I’d experienced, the living amongst and with nature, wasn’t so self-evident.
‘When you work in industry, the greater part of your job consists of managing people and their tasks.’
“After finishing my master’s thesis in the ‘Mathematical Modelling of Coffee Grinding’ I was appointed as a consultant engineer in the energy-from-waste industry for two years. The company I worked for, helped plants construct and operate high efficiency waste incinerators– which, I know, is quite low on the ladder of sustainable ways to deal with waste, but still a spot higher than landfilling and probably still one of the only viable options for large-scale waste processing. Additionally, I also worked on the topic of battery storage. Renewable energy is a great resource, but to power the country it’s highly unreliable by itself. One cloudy, windless day and you’ve got a problem. I am really excited to see where research into chemical and mechanical energy storage can take us.
Targets “I love a complex technical challenge. But when you work in industry, the greater part of your job as a consultant consists of managing people and their tasks, rather than solving complex envirotechnical problems. Besides that, the projects I was involved in were quite focused on, for example, increasing the throughput in order to hit that year’s targets. But the question of how much waste you can get through a facility differs fundamentally from the question of how much energy that same waste can produce.
‘The deciding factor was the promise of a challenge.’
“Ever since high school in which I had a very inspiring chemistry teacher, I’ve been more inclined towards the sustainable route in my education and career. He got me interested in hydrogen fuel cells, by telling us that in order to solve the immense world-wide energy problem we needed to find a way to safely store hydrogen on a large scale. This was still in the back of my mind during my time in industry and, later, during my travels through Myanmar, where there’s both a huge plastic problem as well as a huge energy shortage.
Promise “I’d already decided to pursue my career in academia further when two great opportunities came along: one at TU Delft and one at MCEC. I applied for both and ultimately, got offered both positions. The more I read about the two programs, the more I realised I’d rather come here. The deciding factor was the promise of a challenge. When I spoke to some of the first-phase PhDs of MCEC, none of them said it was easy. They were all very positive about the program and passionate about their projects, but they made it very clear that it wasn’t something that just came naturally. You had to be up for the challenge. And that happened to be exactly what I was looking for.
‘I will have to manage my own expectations – by setting realistic goals, and not trying to end the world’s plastic problem all by myself with one bit of research.’
“My project is Catalytic Conversion of Municipal Waste. It mainly focuses on chemical recycling of plastics. A lot of research has been undertaken on the role of reactors in the chemical recycling of waste, but the current solutions are generally either prohibitively expensive to set up and run, or produce a varied product. So, it would be great to find a practical solution and perhaps take a step towards creating a truly circular economy for plastic. In that sense it’s also interesting to explore the opportunities of collaboration with the chemical engineering department of TU/e.
Goals “I’m looking forward to the next four years. I will have to manage my own expectations – by setting realistic goals, and not trying to end the world’s plastic problem all by myself with one bit of research. I do plan on learning Dutch. I can understand it fairly well already, but in order to fully integrate scientifically and socially, learning the language certainly helps. And if anybody’s up for a MCEC Sports Team: I am, so let’s start one!”
Michael works at Utrecht University under the supervision of Bert Weckhuysen and Florian Meirer. He can mostly be found in the David de Wied Building. You can contact him here.
On March 12th, new MCEC PhDs from Utrecht came together for an informal meeting with MCEC Office and some first-phase PhDs. You can read about that meeting here.
Interview with Ellen Sterk, second-phase MCEC PhD at Utrecht University
Another talent* that has recently started working at MCEC is Ellen Sterk (31). In 2018, Ellen won the AkzoNobel Graduation Prize for Chemistry and Process Technology. Within MCEC, she will work on ‘Support, Alloying and Promoter Effects and Active Sites in CO2Hydrogenation’. This research project has the potential to increase large scale applicability of renewably produced hydrogen and reduce the negative impact of CO2point sources.
Where does your fascination for chemistry stem from? Ellen: “Studying chemistry allows you to think about fundamental aspects of nature. I think it is intriguing that after hundreds and hundreds of years of people exploring ‘the nature of things’, there is still plenty left of that we do not know or understand.”
What will be your biggest challenge, working on your project? “In principle, I’m not bad in time-management; however, setting a realistic time frame is not really my strongest suit. I tend to not choose between several tasks and ‘just’ start doing all of them with the aim of delivering complete work.”
In the next four years, what is it that you hope to learn, develop, or explore? “In four years, I would like to learn a lot in spectroscopy as a scientific skill. I want to be able to use that together with a theoretical approach (DFT) to ‘attack’ the problems and questions that I will come across during my research. Sometimes I think it’s a pity that time is a linear thing, because I would like to learn a lot of things – and really own it.”
Do you see chances for collaboration with other MCEC PhDs or research groups? “Being a new PhD, I still have to discover what’s swimming around in the MCEC pool. But I do already have a close collaboration with Ivo Filot. This originates from my master project – which was a computational study of the CO2methanation over nickel – and Ivo (as well as Bart Zijlstra from TU/e) taught me all the ins and outs needed to successfully perform this research. For my PhD project I’m also planning to perform other DFT calculations and Ivo is willing to serve as a go-to person.”
What do you do in your free time? “During my free time I like to play soccer. Unfortunately, I currently have a long-lasting sport injury which really holds me back. I hope to be able to pick up sports in the upcoming season. Another hobby of mine is doing handy-craft projects like stone sculpting. For me it doesn’t matter that these projects take several weeks, sometimes even months. I find it very satisfying to work precise and to build something new using my imagination, creativity and patience.”
Ellen Sterk works at Utrecht University under the supervision of Bert Weckhuysen. You can find her profile page here.
Bert Weckhuysen was on a China mission for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. The goal was to foster scientific cooperation between industry and universities between the two countries and to develop research programs for cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) within the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC). Weckhuysen also visited Peking University, where he gave the Physical Chemistry Chang-Ge Lecture.
Bert Weckhuysen (UU) has received a grant of 50k Euro from the Netherlands Initiative for Education Research (NRO), for innovation in academic education: “The Da Vinci Project: Towards an active learning-by-doing approach to train a new generation of true connectors in the field of sustainability”. This course, which will be launched in the academic year 2019-2020, will complement the current Utrecht University honours program, and is meant for 3rd years bachelors students from different faculties.
The article “Optoelectronic Properties of Ternary I-III-VI2 Semiconductor Nanocrystals: Bright Prospects with Elusive Origins” from Anne Berends, Mark Mangnus (new MCEC PhD), Chenghui Xia, Freddy Rabouw, and Celso de Mello Donega has reached the cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.
The selection process for the second PhD Call may be in full swing – already thirty MCEC PhDs have started with their projects in Utrecht, Twente and Eindhoven. MCEC Office organized a small get-together with coffee & cake to welcome the new Utrecht-based PhDs. There were talks of background and current research, but also of hobbies and (personal) affinities with sustainability.
F.l.t.r.: Laurens Mandemaker (1st phase), Mark Mangnus, Michael Jenks, Thomas van Swieten, Anne-Eva van Nieuwelink (1st phase), Petra Keijzer (1st phase), Joris Koek, Romy Riemersma, Erik Maris, Ahmed Ismail (1st phase), Jochem van Duin, Rafael Mayorga Gonzalez and Ellen Sterk.
“Earth to earth, dust to dust, carbon to carbon: Bert Weckhuysen, Distinguished University Professor ‘Catalysis, Energy and Sustainability’, sketches the ingredients for a true circular economy. In his lecture at the Royal Institution in London, he explained how catalysis research can contribute to a cleaner world, and how politics and government need to play an essential part by introducing adequate legislation.” Read the full article on the website of Utrecht University.