The Dutch research center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium, which investigates the sustainable molecules and materials of the future, is starting with two large new research lines. In its first two flagships, the research consortium will work on paint based on, among others, plant waste and on the new generation of catalysts that will make processes significantly more sustainable.
Within the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC), a group of selected chemists, physicians, engineers and material scientists of nearly all Dutch universities is cooperating intensively with the three chemical companies AkzoNobel, BASF, and Shell. The flagships of ARC CBBC are large research lines in which the consortium performs fundamental research that, on the long term, can lead to new applications in the chemical industry.
Scientific director of ARC CBBC Bert Weckhuysen is joyful about the start of the two flagships. “With these research lines we are working on new, sustainable chemical building blocks. This will enable us to pave the way to yet unknown materials that will spare the environment. Greener and better is the creed. That is extremely exciting.”
Plant waste instead of fossil feedstock
ARC CBBC is choosing coatings – paint – based on plant waste and crustaceans. With that, it will be possible to replace crude oil in the future. Weckhuysen elucidates the choice: “Coatings are everywhere. It would be great if we would be able to produce them from waste. The most important component of paint is the network of polymers. We want to base it on biological molecules, like lignin and chitin, instead of crude oil. The chemical industry can use renewable feedstock as a basis of the high quality chemical building blocks that are essential for the paints of the future.
Next to that, the consortium will develop new catalysts that consist of two metals. A catalyst is a material that enables and accelerates chemical processes. Not rarely, they require high value and rare precious metals. “In bimetallic catalysts, more common metals like nickel and iron are present, next to a precious metal like palladium”, Weckhuysen explains. “Using those, we can lower the pressure on scarce materials. Additionally, the positive characteristics of precious metals can be used much better in bimetallic catalysts than in monometallic varieties. A chemical process can then for example run more selective or at a lower temperature. That will immediately result in saving sources and energy in an industrial sector with an extensive use of both.”
Fifteen PhD positions for now
During the last year, participants in ARC CBBC have together intensively thought about the road that should be taken. Weckhuysen: “Our 37 academic researchers have specified their ideas and mirrored them to possible applications the chemical industry is foreseeing. This process has led to these two first directions of research with, in total, fifteen PhD positions. After summer, we hope to be able to start a third line with another six PhD positions.
Apart from the flagships, ARC CBBC has got another, bilateral, research line, which is more based on the possible short-term applications by the industrial partners. “For that type of projects, already eight young researchers have start”, says Weckhuysen. “The size of the research consortium is unprecedented. A unique situation that, we hope, will enable us to help make the chemical sector in the Netherlands and abroad more sustainable step by step.”
Robert Terörde is senior research manager with chemical company BASF. He is expecting a lot from the cooperation, both from the fundamental research within the flagships and from the more application-aimed bilateral projects. “Academic researchers are good at thinking out-of-the-box. Within the flagships, we are pre-competitively working on long-term solutions with them and other companies. It is a beautiful challenge to bring together our different areas of expertise for socially relevant themes.”