PhD candidate Lukas Wolzak from the University of Amsterdam is exploring new catalysts that make paints more sustainable. In this ARC CBBC bilateral project, industrial partner AkzoNobel wishes to find ways to bring down the temperature at which catalyzed reactions take place. Apart from saving much energy directly, lower reactions temperatures would also open doors to use different, greener base components.
Lukas Wolzak’s bilateral project is called ‘Polyester synthesis using novel and efficient esterification catalysts’. Since its start, Wolzak, who combined a science study with art school, has learned a lot. In his office at the campus of the University of Amsterdam, he elaborates on his work as a catalyst chemist in a project for the largest coatings manufacturer in the Netherlands. Wolzak: “What is paint? On beforehand, I had not really thought about it, but there is much to it. Paint consists of networks of, among others, polyester polymers that have to fuse together when, but not before, applied on a surface. The angle of my project is to make catalysts that will enable us to produce those polymers in a more efficient way.”
“When you apply a paint on the wall, it will initially show the stripes from your paint brush. The idea is that those stripes will disappear when the paint cures, which is how this chemical drying process is called. The polymer structure will then coalesce. Making such a polyester is actually ancient chemistry. If you use a cat, the reaction will go faster.”
Lower reaction temperature
One of the topics Wolzak is working on is the temperature at which polyester polymers are produced. “At this moment, the polymers have to be made at very high temperatures. We want to alter that,” Wolzak explains. “When the temperature could be brought down, the process would consume significantly less energy. So that is why I am exploring many options for different catalysts that could enable such a lower polymer production temperature.”
Another topic that the project is aiming on, is greenifying the production chain. Wolzak: “Right now, paint producers are using specific acids and alcohols to produce the polyester polymers. It would be interesting to be able to make those from biomass. Unfortunately, those molecules cannot cope with the high temperatures that are required for reaction. Apart from that, it is the rest groups in the acids and alcohol that give a paint its characteristics. You will have to replace them by different building blocks.”
Enough space to find out
Although based at university, Wolzak is in close contact with the industrial partner AkzoNobel. “In the beginning of my PhD project, I worked in their lab for a week. The researchers from an industrial partner are primarily interested in the question whether a chemical process works. As an academic, I also want to know how it works. So AkzoNobel is more aimed on making paint whereas we focus on catalysis. The purpose is the same, the only difference is what we emphasize on. They give me enough space to find the answers to my research questions. In general the researches at AkzoNobel encourage me to look for the catalytic activity they need but they do give me enough freedom to go deeper as well.”
Explain the success
There are more differences that really surprise the PhD candidate. “They are working on a different scale. In my training here, I was used to working with erlenmeyers. With them, it is easily four or five times as large. That is new for me. At their lab in Sassenheim, they even paint cars to test their products. You really see what it is they are working for.”
Moniek Tromp, who started her professorship in Materials Chemistry at University of Groningen on 1 July, is one of Wolzak’s promotors. “Industries may in some cases be using certain catalytic processes for years already, but may not have scientific explanations for their success. The input of academic researchers is to provide knowledge on those reactions. During their projects, our PhD candidates get to know the industrial environment. They see the direct relevance and application of their, sometimes very fundamental, work.”
From AkzoNobel, Lukas Wolzak is guided by the leader of the polymer laboratory Keimpe van den Berg. The work Lukas Wolzak is doing on catalyst development for polyester syntheses is helping AkzoNobel in the development of more sustainable paints and coatings; it will lower the lower carbon footprint of our products. Wolzak himself has high expectations of sustainable chemistry in general. “In the circular economy and the energy of the future, a big role is in store for chemistry.”
Lukas Wolzak’s project is directly linked to the flagship project on Coatings that ARC CBBC started recently.