At the beginning of her career as a university professor, Katja Loos was told by the national research evaluation committee that the research direction she'd chosen had no future and she'd “never succeed.” A decade later, her group's papers are paving the way for an extremely important change in the chemical industry that could make polymer production far more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Loos, who was born and raised in Germany and moved to Groningen in 2003 to take the role of assistant professor, actually considered a career in physics back in high school.
“When we had chemistry in school, I liked it, but I liked physics more,” Loos said. “We also had the opportunity to do company internships through school, but there were no places related to physics. So I went for something chemistry-related — and I really liked it and decided to study chemistry.”
In her progression from assistant professor to full professor at the University of Groningen, Loos has formed a 20-strong research group that focuses on certain important areas, which could have a transformative impact on both the fundamental science and the everyday lives of many people.
The first research topic, which also happens to be the one perceived to have “no future” ten years ago, is enzymatic polymerisation. The idea here is to offer a new method of creating polymers, avoiding the high temperatures which have driven emissions and the use of toxic materials as catalysts. Examples include the recent results on enzymatic polymerization of biobased furan monomers to for instance PEF, which is used for fizzy drinks bottles as a greener alternative to PET. In addition, enzymatic polymerisation allows for the creation of new polymers that weren't possible with the old methods.
Another research direction is block copolymers. This involves connecting different polymeric blocks of monomers on the molecular level, creating a number of blocks arranged in a linear pattern. Achieving this allows the researchers to create materials with interesting properties or in unusual shapes. For example, piezoelectric foams based on block copolymer templates could be used in high-end audio systems due to their sound transmission capabilities. Another interesting achievement is composite magnetoelectric materials that could potentially be used for next-generation memory devices.
Part of Loos's group is also involved in a project, the goal of which is to create slow-digestible starch.
“In foods like potatoes or corn, the starch [is contained] in the grains,” Loos said. “When you boil or shred them to make flour, you set free the molecules of amylose and amylopectin which a human digests very quickly. If you eat something made of white flour, like a cookie or a baguette, your glycemic index spikes. This is not a problem for me and hopefully not for you, because our body is used to it. But for some people — for instance, those who suffer from diabetes or are about to develop it — that's really dangerous.”
With the slow-digestible starch that Loos's group is working on, it's possible to make normal products based on white flour safe for anyone who's sensitive to blood sugar level changes. This research project has already covered significant ground and is close to achieving its goals. The final stage would involve controlled experiments with animals and humans as subjects, which is “out of scope” of the research group, that is focusing on the fundamental science.
“That's the nice thing about the Zernike Institute,” Loos said when speaking of the application of the groups. Although the group wouldn't normally be involved in the practicalities of the implementation of its projects, Loos has access to the knowledge of hundreds of her colleagues to figure out how the materials she's working on could be used in real life.
“We are making the material and then we don't know what to do,” she said. “We may have an idea, but we don't have the necessary equipment or experience.”
In addition to passing the fundamental research to other groups within the university, Loos has long been involved in projects with the industry.
“I have no problems speaking in the terms of the industry,” she said, explaining that polymer chemistry is a fairly applied science, which makes partnerships with private players effective and mutually beneficial.
The range of the collaborations is extremely wide, but the common thing is that the industry in general is becoming more aware of sustainability issues. This awareness and the rising demand of green solutions makes the research done by Loos much more relevant in today's society.
In one of the recent projects, the group worked with BASF on a project of enzymatic transfer of sugar units from biomass “to any monomer that we usually have in plastics,” Loos said. This method, which allows sugar to be extracted effectively from waste, is now used in the production of sustainable soap, shampoo, even paints and coating products.
To drive the adoption of the research and facilitate knowledge sharing, Loos also runs two public-private partnerships with a variety of stakeholders.
The first one, Soft Advanced Materials (SAM), is a project worth €3.6 million co-financed by industry players and the NWO. It involves 11 PhD students working in different universities across the Netherlands on a wide range of topics that fit three main directions: adaptive materials, sustainable materials, and platform science. Loos's group is focusing on enzymatic polymerisation of green monomers, which is similar to what it did in earlier projects.
“The nice thing about this consortium is that there are a lot of theoretical scientists participating who sometimes have completely different views on how to do things,” Loos said. “That makes it very beneficial for PhD students to participate [and be exposed to different viewpoints].”
The second, smaller consortium run by Loos focuses on self-assembling materials — from car tyres to various coatings and many other products. The industrial partners include global giants like Continental, ASM, and Tata Steel, which don't get exclusive patents out of this collaboration, but do gain access to academic research and talent. For the universities, projects like this solve funding problems and make it easier to bring the research out of the lab to create real and measurable societal impact.
Another way to bring the research closer to everyday life and to the industry is through the Honours Master “High-Tech Systems and Materials” (HTSM) that Loos coordinates at the University of Groningen. With innovation at its core, the programme offers extra courses, as well as an assignment from an industrial partner.
“Students love working close to the industry,” Loos said. “They need to write a product proposal, create a business case, and then they spend three weeks full-time with the company — and it's amazing how much of a transformative experience it is.”
The full implementation of enzymatic polymerisation by the industry is certainly not there yet, but Loos expects it to start happening in the near future. It'd take a company to build a completely new factory to switch to the new method, she said, and it's understandable that not many are rushing to do that as it requires a huge financial investment. However, when the need for new production facilities becomes more pressing, Loos doesn't doubt that the manufacturers will go for the greener options.
As for the research, Loos expects that enzymatic polymerisation and furan-based monomers will continue to play a significant role for the group. The scientist plans to focus on green solvents for the industry, as well as on recycling.
“It doesn't help that you make your polymers well if you don't have good end-of-life criteria for your materials,” she said. “We need to strive to make a plastic bottle out of another plastic bottle. We have to do something for the climate and for the environment.”
Interview by Andrii Degeler. For more information, please contact Prof. Katja Loos
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