Molecular Systems and Materials Chemistry

Supramolecular Chemistry and Catalysis at TU/e

Fundamental research, applied science and meaningful minds are the ingredients society needs to face up to the significant challenges of the future. TU/e’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry performs pioneering research across a broad spectrum of themes ranging from atomic scale molecular design and nanoscale organization of new functional materials to the design of large-scale production, process, and equipment concepts.

The department is organised around two thematic clusters:

  • Molecular Systems and Materials Chemistry, and
  • Chemical and Process Technology.

The Molecular Systems and Materials Chemistry cluster focuses on the design and synthesis of novel molecules, macromolecular and supramolecular assemblies, and functional materials with a wide range of applications in the fields of energy, health, and sustainability. The research investigates new supramolecular concepts in organic and polymer chemistry and materials science, and the interface and physical chemistry of polymer materials. Overall results include organic and polymer materials for optical, electronic and responsive devices, bio-inspired and multiscale materials, and new routes to polymer materials using renewable resources. The Chemical and Process Technology cluster covers a broad spectrum in the field of the chemical engineering sciences, ranging from fundamental scientific understanding to targeted engineering applications. The major research areas in this cluster are reactor and separation technology, process intensification, and molecular heterogeneous catalysis.

This interview reveals aspects of the Molecular Systems and Materials Chemistry cluster’s work in the area of supramolecular chemistry and catalysis (Professor Anja Palmans), responsive functional materials and devices (Assistant Professor Danqing Liu) and complex supramolecular systems (PhD candidate Mathijs Mabesoone).

Why does TU/e have such an outstanding reputation in Chemical Engineering?

Anja: “As visiting researchers from Japan put it recently: TU/e is seen globally as the Valhalla of macromolecular and supramolecular chemistry. I think the secret of our success is our strength in pure fundamental research and the unique pioneering business environment in and around Eindhoven, which automatically fosters collaboration in applied science projects. Some of our research projects start with an application in mind, whereas others are ‘blue sky’ ideas - research for the sake of it, the results of which may lie on the shelf for 10 years or more before some bright mind sees a spin-off application. The other key factor is the close proximity between pure chemistry and chemical engineering at this campus.”

Danqing: “I am from China, where I obtained my Bachelor, and subsequently studied Electrical Engineering in Delft and Mechanical Engineering in Eindhoven. Based on that experience and the reactions of other scientists I talk to at conferences, Eindhoven is one of the best groups in the world when it comes to responsive materials. The facilities and equipment are excellent; the envy of most other universities in fact. We are set up very efficiently here, with the offices on one side of the building and the lab on the other. The other thing that strikes me is the degree of openness and accessibility in Eindhoven. Excellent peer to peer interaction, good accessibility of information for students and the strong collaborative spirit between industry and scientists.”

Mathijs: “I studied pure chemistry in Nijmegen and decided to do my PhD at TU/e after one of my professors in Nijmegen recommended I consider that option. I think the Netherlands is pretty strong in general in the supramolecular area. TU/e is unique in that it perches comfortably and effectively on the interface between fundamental research and applied science. The different groups in the Department collaborate synergistically with each other and TU/e is also a welcome partner in international collaborations.”

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What have you focused on during the past 12 months?

Anja: “I have been closely involved in fundamental research that investigates methods for folding single polymer chains into well-defined nanoparticles with the ultimate aim of producing synthetic enzymes. We now have a good basic understanding of how to control this folding process in order to mimic the behaviour of enzymes, which are the catalysts of nature’s biochemical networks. Why is that important? To cut a long story short, this brings us a step closer to delivering specifically designed drugs, prodrugs, to targeted cells in the body. In theory, the polymer will fold around a catalyst that triggers a specific chemical reaction to preferentially activate prodrugs near a specific type of cell. The polymer acts as a delivery package and protects the catalyst. The idea is to get the polymer safely through a hostile and highly competitive environment and accumulate it at the target site. This allows administration of the prodrug, which is only activated there when needed. Incredibly exciting and rewarding research!”

Danqing: “I have been working on dynamic surface topographies. We use liquid crystal structures in a polymer network to engineer thin-film coatings that swell or contract in response to stimuli such as light, heat or an electric field. You can also create surface patterns with this technology, with a height difference of a thousandth of a millimetre between the different structural arrangements. That doesn’t sound like much, but you can see and feel it quite distinctly, particularly when the structures are made to move.”

Mathijs: “I am particularly proud of my contribution to a paper on the use of alcohol cosolvents in oils to control supramolecular structure. This work, carried out in collaboration with the Riken Institute in Japan, demonstrates how combining computational simulations and experiments allows us to unravel new phenomena in one-dimensional supramolecular polymers and exploit these phenomena to design new material properties. This opens up a door to further exciting research.”

That’s a very diverse spectrum! Where do you expect to be in three years?

Anja: “We have that very important first step behind us, which is a good start. The next step is to combine the folding polymer with a catalyst. The idea is to fold the delivery mechanism, the polymer, around the payload, i.e. the catalyst, in a way that replicates how an enzyme folds up. I expect this to keep us busy for a few years. The breakthrough will come when we find the ideal combination of the ligand, which binds to the metal, and the metal itself. The choice of metal determines what reaction you can trigger. What we have now already works, but we need to make it better and faster. There is intense competition in this area. Fortunately, we are part of a European consortium that includes several other universities, so we hope to remain at the forefront of this fascinating area of research.”

Danqing: “There are so many potential applications for our coatings: a haptic virtual keyboard on an iPad or smartphone, vibrating coatings that keep solar panels free of dust or sand, soft-membrane fingertips for robots that grasp or release objects. There are even ideas for using the technology to actively pump gases through films. My personal goal is to make a self-cleaning coating that reacts to touch.”

Mathijs: “The challenge now is to apply the fundamental research and use it in a device. The next three years will be devoted to cataloguing the effects we can achieve and then translating those effects to real-world applications such as LED lighting, battery technology or transistors.”

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TU/e is obviously recognised as a leading university in chemistry and chemical engineering. Would you recommend TU/e to other academics looking for research opportunities?

Anja: “I love it here. The TU/e is a great place to work and well-situated in the Netherlands. The connections to the rest of the world are also excellent. It’s quite rural, which I like, and there is a good focus on fundamental research, the area that interests me most. And the lab facilities really are among the best in the world. The thing that stands out most though is the willingness to collaborate with each other and the interplay between engineering and chemistry. So yes, I would recommend Eindhoven and TU/e to colleagues without a second thought.”

Danqing: “I can echo that: the facilities are great and the knowledge in our group is world-leading. The teaching aspect also interests me: I’m looking forward to teaching a new course for students from other disciplines. Eindhoven offers an ideal mix: good funding, because the links to industry here are so strong, fundamental research in the lab and then applied science hand-inhand with industry leaders. The career prospects at TU/e are also good.”

Mathijs: “Having worked in labs on several continents, I particularly enjoy the excellent infrastructure, great atmosphere and exceptionally strong collaborative spirit in Eindhoven. The facilities in the laboratories greatly facilitate the fundamental science I do, and I very much enjoy the fascinating and refreshing interaction with chemists who focus on the applied science aspects.”

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What unresolved question or dream inspires you?

Anja: “I dream of a synthetic system that is capable of matching the activity and selectivity of biocatalysts. When we reach that stage, we will be able to treat diseases like cancer far more effectively. Because there are so many different forms of cancer. And different stages in how the disease progresses. Just imagine being able to engineer packages for each different type of cancer. And being able to design and deliver different payloads for localised tumours and tumours that have metastasised.”

Danqing: “Dynamic surface topography is just the first step for me. I am hopeful that we will ultimately be able to create an artificial skin that mimics the functions of human skin and perhaps goes even further. Just think of the possible applications that will have in robotics, medicine and other areas.”

Mathijs: “The materials that we have at the moment are static. My dream is to make them dynamic by introducing quasi-biological properties. So the materials of the future will be capable of metabolism and be able to evolve. A type of synthetic living material.”