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Reinventing chemistry: no lab coat required

New laboratories and new tenure track scientists to develop green chemistry
12 October 2021

A series of brand-new chemistry laboratories has been created on the top floor of the Linnaeusborg building at the Zernike Campus. This is where two new tenure track scientists will activate reactions to create molecules using only light or electrons, and will use new building blocks to create ’next generation’ sustainable materials. It is a much cleaner approach to making everyday objects in more than one way.

When asked to visualize chemistry, most people will think of bubbling beakers, test tubes, and smelly vapours inside a fume cupboard. In classic chemistry, high temperatures or high pressure are often required to make chemicals react. This means that large chemical plants use a lot of energy. To fight global warming, chemistry needs to change, by using renewable base materials and reducing the energy needed for chemical processes.

Sebastian Beil (L) and Michael Lerch | Photo ARC CBBC
Sebastian Beil (L) and Michael Lerch | Photo ARC CBBC

Electrons

Therefore, the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC) was founded in 2016. The original idea came from Ben Feringa, an organic chemist at the University of Groningen, and Bert Weckhuysen, his colleague from Utrecht University. The aim of this Center, at which universities and chemical companies collaborate, is to provide the sustainable molecules of the future.

The new laboratories at the Linnaeusborg hold equipment and facilities to support the ARC CBBC researchers, including two new tenure track scientists: Sebastian Beil and Michael Lerch. Both will focus on rethinking the way in which molecules and materials are made. ‘We want to introduce more sustainable methods,’ explains Beil. ‘My work will focus on using electrons and light in synthetic chemistry.’ Single electrons are used to create free radicals, which are activated molecules that will react easily. ‘This electrochemistry is in fact an old, but more or less forgotten, technique,’ says Beil. ‘It was already used in the 19th century to produce fragrances. The technique was revived some ten to fifteen years ago.’

Lego blocks

Using electrons instead of heat and pressure is much more energy efficient. And if the electricity comes from renewable sources, it is also climate neutral. But that is not the only advantage of synthesizing molecules with electrons, explains Beil: ‘It also provides new strategies to construct molecules. One of my dreams is to use this technique to make new kinds of amino acids that can be used in pharmaceuticals.’

A coating made from biomass using light, oxygen and UV light is one of the successes of ARC CBBC | Illustration George Hermens and Paco Visser, University of Groningen
A coating made from biomass using light, oxygen and UV light is one of the successes of ARC CBBC | Illustration George Hermens and Paco Visser, University of Groningen

His colleague Michael Lerch concurs. ‘You can build all kinds of objects using Lego blocks. But with our technology, we can create new types of Lego blocks, components that may revolutionize the types of materials that we can make.’ ‘Indeed,’ adds Beil, ‘another project will be to create nitriles, a reactive group that is important in polymer chemistry.’ A nitrile is a nitrogen atom that is linked to carbon with a triple bond, and the construction through traditional chemistry uses the very toxic substance cyanide. Using light instead would make the reaction much cleaner.

Pattern

However, making chemical processes greener is just one aspect of the ARC CBBC programme. The Research Center also wants to create new materials that are more robust, self-healing, and that can make autonomous decisions. Lerch: ‘My ambition is to integrate chemistry in bio-inspired soft materials, so that devices that we make out of these materials do not need traditional electronics anymore.’ By using pre-programmed feedback loops, a material can change its shape and inner workings in a way that is similar to how an embryo grows from a single cell into a fully grown human with different types of organs.

Beil: ‘The materials that I want to create could, for example, form specific patterns in this way, and these patterns could give them different properties.’ Or the technique could be used to change the pattern on your walls, without any repainting. ‘Our methods are complementary,’ continues Beil. ‘Michael can assemble and organize the building blocks that my group provides in such a way that they represent some sort of basic circuit. As a result, you end up with smart paints that can detect harmful chemicals, adapt to changing weather outside, and even rearrange their function in response to how the room’s interior is arranged. Everything is made using green processes.’

Energy

A key advantage of using either electrochemistry or photochemistry is that these techniques allow the construction of flow processes. Traditional chemistry is carried out in reaction vessels. Once the reaction is completed, the products must be transferred to the next vessel, which often involves purification steps. Reactions that are induced by electrons or light can be carried out in flow systems, where the materials enter and are transformed en route in a number of subsequent steps. Again, this will often use less energy and produce less waste.

Beil: ‘And we only need lab coats when we prepare the initial reagents. The entire process then takes place in a closed system.’ ‘This is also helpful for creating our new materials,’ adds Lerch. Both scientists want to develop smart materials that are more robust and adaptable. Bones are a good example from biology, as they adapt to stress by becoming stronger. Beil: ‘Think of your phone, which gets regular updates. We would like to create materials that can be similarly updated, rather than being broken down into waste.’

See also:
Scientists create coatings from nature
Greenification of the chemical industry one step closer by the extension of ARC CBBC


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About ARC CBBC

The ARC CBBC started in 2016 as a collaboration between three universities (the University of Groningen, Utrecht University, and Eindhoven Technical University) and four chemical companies (AkzoNobel, Shell, BASF, and Nouryon/Nobian). The research programme was set for a 10-year period. Since the start, five more universities joined the Center (Delft Technical University, Wageningen University & Research, the University of Twente, VU Amsterdam, and the University of Amsterdam). Currently, over 70 scientists are working on ARC CBBC projects.

The mission of ARC CBBC is to provide innovation to realize a climate-neutral chemical industry by 2050 through research on a circular economy (no waste and recycling), cleaner and more efficient chemical processes, and the use of biomass as a starting material. To fulfil this mission, four research themes were selected:

1) Small molecule activation: conversion of methane into carbon materials and carbon building blocks;
2) Fundamentals of catalysis: development and analysis of clean and green catalysts;
3) Coatings: replace fossil-based feedstock with bio-based materials, develop water-based paints, and develop the chemistry to make materials more durable;
4) New chemistry for the future: chemical recycling of plastic, CO2 conversion via electrocatalysis, and electrochemical and photo-redox conversion into chemical building blocks.

As from September 2021, there are seven full professors, two assistant professors, three postdoctoral researchers, and nine PhD students at the University of Groningen who are teaming up to achieve the goals of the ARC CBBC research. There are also four vacancies that will be filled towards the end of the year. A recent example of a research project is the creation of a ‘coating from nature’: organic chemists from the University of Groningen and the Dutch multinational company AkzoNobel, a major global producer of paints and coatings, developed a process that allows them to turn biomass into a high-quality coating using only oxygen and light.

Last modified:15 November 2021 12.37 p.m.
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