The research group of chemistry professor Erik Heeres focuses on green chemical engineering – and on Indonesia. On Friday, Heeres will see the third Indonesian student in three weeks be awarded a PhD.
He apologizes for the mess in his office – the conference table is strewn with vials containing rubber tree seeds, jatropha oil and lots of other biological matter, both refined and unrefined. ‘There’s a lot going on at the moment,’ he says. This is an understatement: in fact, there’s been a lot going on for years.
Heeres works at the interface of chemistry and engineering. He is busy working out new chemical processes, but is also trying to engineer a mobile refinery for vegetable oil. With his work he aims to make the most of biomass. And a lot of his ideas come from Indonesia.
‘This started some thirteen years ago, when the University of Groningen started a joint research Master’s programme with the
Institut Teknologi Bandung in Indonesia. The coursework was done in Indonesia, but the students came here to do their research projects.’ The supervisors at Groningen tried to come up with projects that would be relevant to the Indonesian students.
That’s how Heeres came across the jatropha plant, known for its toxic seeds. ‘It’s basically a weed in Indonesia, but the seeds are rich in oil.’ As jatropha is inedible and will grow under poor conditions, it doesn’t compete with food crops, unlike other sources of vegetable oil.
Over the last few years much of Heeres’ research work has revolved around jatropha. He was even involved in a jatropha expedition in 2005, which was organized by National Geographic. It involved driving 3000 kilometres across Indonesia on biodiesel made from jatropha oil to draw attention to the possibilities of this green fuel. ‘We were even received by the president.’
One of the team members on the expedition was Louis Daniel, who was then studying for his Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in Indonesia. ‘I had to test the fuel we produced to make sure it was the right quality,’ says Daniel. After the project ended, he enrolled on the joint Master’s programme and ended up in Heeres’ lab. He was awarded his PhD from the University of Groningen on 7 September and is now working as a postdoc in the same lab.
‘My job was to see if we could refine the jatropha oil into high-quality compounds.’ Daniel explains. It turned out jatropha oil could generate the same products as palm oil. ‘So biorefineries can use both as a base material.’ He also developed chemical techniques to turn the oil into a lubricant, one that does not freeze even under wintry conditions. ‘No, not really necessary in Indonesia,’ he smiles.
Daniel also worked on solids such as carbohydrates and proteins that come from jatropha, and he investigated a new type of oil, from the Sterculia tree (tropical chestnut). ‘We found it contained a special chemical compound with a cyclopropene ring that is both very reactive and very stable, depending on the conditions. It is extremely useful for all sorts of chemical reactions.’
‘That’s one thing I like about working with Indonesians,’ Heeres says enthusiastically. ‘They can produce a new type of oil or new biomass source we’ve never heard of that has all sorts of useful properties. We’ve just started working on the gelam tree, which is used to revitalize deforested land. We are trying to find out what useful things we can make from it.’ Heeres is working on a myriad of projects, including the design of a mobile refinery. ‘You can drive it to a source of vegetable oil, process it and then move to the next location.’
In all, some eight Indonesian students who worked with Heeres have been awarded theirPhDs and seven more PhDs are in the pipeline. Most of the students return to Indonesia, as they already have jobs at universities there. ‘We hope that this will stimulate a new generation of local research scientists. Because there’s a lot to discover in Indonesia.’
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