Katja Loos, Professor of Polymer Chemistry at the University of Groningen, is conducting science while industry representatives are looking over her shoulder. Loos does not consider this scary. On the contrary, it inspires her and her colleagues from six other Dutch universities. Together, they make up the new virtual research centre for Soft Advanced Materials (SAM), which received a €3.6 million grant from the NWO (Dutch Research Council) and industry partners.
‘Although our work is not focused on applications, we asked our industry partners to pick their favourites from over a hundred research ideas,’ explains Loos. She wrote the programme proposal and is now the programme’s coordinator. Twelve PhD students will work on the selected projects. ‘The idea behind this is that the companies get to know the research groups at the different universities and that the young researchers get the opportunity to experience the industrial partner’s R&D activities,’ says Loos.
Four companies are participating in the SAM research centre: the Dutch chemical companies DSM (health, nutrition and materials) and Corbion (food and biochemicals), and Germany-based BASF (the second largest chemicals producer in the world) and BYK Altana (additives). Together, they are contributing €1 million to the programme.
The companies decided on the programme’s general course by selecting 12 projects from a long list of research ideas. They are also involved in the annual review of each project. ‘This allows them to indicate whether they feel that the project is still on the course that they envisioned at the start.’ However, Loos stresses that the PhD supervisors make the final decision regarding the project’s progress. ‘If they disagree with the company representatives, it is up to me to find a solution.’
Most of the PhD students have started their projects. So far, Loos is excited about the interaction with the commercial partners. ‘BASF is a German company but they don’t really know what is happening in the chemical labs in the Netherlands within the fields of polymer science and soft matter. They are curious, as is BYK Altana,’ says Loos. And the companies are already interacting with the students. ‘It is inspiring for the students to see a company representative interested in their work.’
So, over the course of the programme, the industry partners will learn more about what polymer scientists at Dutch universities are working on. The scientists will gain better insight into the companies’ needs, while 12 curiosity-driven projects will have been completed.
The projects cover three main themes: adaptive materials, sustainability and platform science. Four PhD students from the University of Groningen take part in the SAM consortium. Loos is supervising two students with sustainability-themed projects, who will work on bio-based and on biodegradable polymers. The other two PhD students from Groningen are being supervised by Prof. Marleen Kamperman (adaptive materials) and Dr Giuseppe Portale (platform science).
The project that Kamperman is supervising (together with Prof. Wiebe de Vos from the University of Twente) aims to create a new coating to keep surfaces clean. If all works well, the coating can be regenerated. The first step is to create a polymer that will attach to a surface and that also has a charged section that sticks out. ‘We then add a second polymer that has the opposite charge and properties that prevent fouling of the surface,’ explains Kamperman. This second polymer will attach to the first polymer. ‘The link between the two polymers can be broken by changing the acidity or the salt concentration. This would enable us to recycle the released polymer.’
The industry partners are interested in different applications. Anti-fouling materials could be used to keep a ship’s hull clean or to prevent your office chair from causing stripes on the wall. ‘The application determines the kind of polymers needed,’ says Kamperman. Creating the right polymers will be the major challenge in this project. The joint experience of Kamperman and De Vos should help the PhD student to accomplish this.
The project led by Giuseppe Portale is not aimed at creating new materials but at developing new characterization techniques to study them. In the Physics & Chemistry building’s basement, Portale’s group constructed a large, unique X-ray machine that can be used to study the nanostructure of materials (solution, bulk and thin films) in the 1-1000 nanometre range. One of the applications of this set-up is watching how paint dries in real time. Portale shoots X-rays at a sample, at small or wide angles, depending on the length scales to be investigated. These then bounce off and are focused on a 2D position-sensitive detector.
‘The scattering pattern contains information about the surface structure of the films,’ explains Portale. And not just about the surface. By adjusting the incident angle, X-rays can penetrate into the material to different depths before they get scattered. This means that he is able to study, for example, a 30-micrometre layer of coating or paint at different depths. Furthermore, the method is non-destructive and does not affect the sample, enabling him to watch coatings form during drying.
‘That kind of information can help producers to understand the drying processes and can help them to refine coating formulations. My PhD student will look at different coatings that closely mimic the commercially available ones. All have the same ingredients but in different combinations.’ Currently, changing the formulation is largely a trial-and-error process. The technique that Portale uses will help scientists to understand what factors determine the final structure and hence the coating’s final properties.
It is a technique that he started to develop at the large European Synchrotron X-ray Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble (France). ‘Synchrotron facilities such as the ESRF are much more powerful and we therefore use them in our research each time the system dynamics are faster than one second. The use of different X-ray tools allows us to study how atoms, molecules and nanoparticles assemble in space and time.’
With nearly all PhD projects underway, Katja Loos will be busy coordinating and mediating, while also conducting science. ‘A major advantage of this programme is that all university partners are in the Netherlands. So, it is easy to meet up.’ Furthermore, the companies involved are also located nearby. ‘We even get spur-of-the-moment visits.’ At the end of the programme, all partners will know each other better, which should lead to more cooperation between universities and chemical companies.
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