Chemical and Process Technology

Sustainable Chemical Processes 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 the design of large-scale production, process and equipment concepts to atomic-scale molecular design and nanoscale organization of new functional materials.

The department is organised around two thematic clusters:

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

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 include reactor and separation technology, process intensification, and molecular heterogeneous catalysis. Combining these research areas often leads to novel or improved reactor, separation, and process technologies and concepts. The research groups collaborate intensively with the chemical industry to reduce energy usage, improve feedstock efficiency and develop novel chemical and physical operating windows. 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. 

This interview reveals aspects of the Chemical and Process Technology cluster's work in the area of membrane materials and processes (Professor Kitty Nijmeijer), micro flow chemistry and synthetic methodology (Associate Professor Timothy Noël) and the numerical and experimental study of particle transport in fluids (PhD candidate Rohit Maitri).

Why does tu/e have such an outstanding reputation in chemical and process technology?

Kitty: “It’s largely due to our high technological orientation, excellent lab facilities and close links with a broad-based industry sector within a 100 km radius of Eindhoven. While we work on a small scale in the lab, (e.g. we create a new membrane measuring 10 cm x 10 cm), industry needs thousands of square metres of the material. So we set up a small pilot plant with an industrial partner. Or we may need actual protein-rich fluids for filtration tests; that’s just a matter of a quick phone call to a local food producer. Furthermore, the two clusters within the department have great synergy – we are strong in both materials and processes and that cross-fertilisation speeds things up and leads to ground-breaking work.” 

Timothy: “I came to Eindhoven from MIT, which is where I originally became involved in renewable energy and microreactors. Having decided that these were the areas I wanted to pursue, I started to look for universities that specialised in research into both processes and materials. Eindhoven immediately popped up as the best location in Europe, perhaps even in the world. So it really is that unique mix between pure chemistry and technology that makes Eindhoven so special. At the time, I vowed that I would go to Eindhoven without a second thought if I was fortunate enough to be offered a position, and here I am!”

Rohit: “I have seen quite a few universities during my career so far: I obtained my Bachelor in India, my Master’s degree in Canada and am now working on my PhD in the Netherlands. I can confirm that Eindhoven has all the facilities you need, and some highly respected professors. For example, I work in Hans Kuipers’ group, and he is a global authority in his field. So I’d say the professors themselves have also done a great job of making Eindhoven a leading university in Chemical Engineering and Chemistry.”

image
image

Kitty: “I have been involved in some truly exciting work with colleagues who specialise in finetuning polymers. I know nothing about polymers, but a great deal about membranes. They play with polymers every day, but know very little about membranes. During the past year, we set up a joint research group to investigate the use of their engineered materials in membrane applications. Can we separate out the target materials? If not, what do we need to change at the front end in our polymers and membranes? This work is still very much in its infancy, but we have succeeded in obtaining funding and gaining the interest of several industrial partners, so I expect really worthwhile results.”

Timothy: “Our artificial leaf caused quite a stir. This development is actually a microreactor that captures sunlight and uses that energy to make chemical products such as medicines or crop protection agents. We purposely shaped it as a leaf because plant photosynthesis inspired the original idea. Chemical engineers have long dreamed of using sunlight to make chemical products, but have never been able to capture enough energy to trigger the chemical processes. Plants do this very successfully though: antenna molecules in leaves capture energy from sunlight and collect it in reaction centres in the leaf where it is used for photosynthesis. Our team used its knowledge of microchannels to adapt a relatively new material, known as a luminescent solar concentrator (LSC.). The final mini-factory is a silicone rubber LSC through which a liquid can be pumped. The results have surpassed all our expectations, and the beauty of this product is that you can use it to produce advanced chemical compounds in the middle of the jungle, or even on the Moon or Mars.”

Rohit: “My area is the transport of particles in a fluid, something that you encounter in chemical, environmental and biomedical applications. The suspending fluid (blood, saliva, DNA solutions, colloidal suspension and/or polymer solutions) exhibits behaviour such as shear-thinning and viscoelasticity. Being able to precisely manipulate particles, i.e. focus them or separate them, is potentially of great importance for biomedical applications and industrial processes like shale gas production. During the last 12 months I was involved in creating an improved numerical model for particle-fluid systems. This new model delivers results much faster without compromising accuracy. I also participated in experiments investigating the importance of geometry for particle migration when suspended in complex fluids.

Very exciting work that ranges from pure fundamental research to applied science! Where do you expect to be in three years?

Kitty: “If things work out as we expect, we will be making membranes from engineered polymers that allow us to control the pore size with immense accuracy. A perfectly consistent pore size is our ultimate goal. This guarantees complete separation of everything above that size. We will be able to offer membranes that separate out substances in a controlled and targeted manner. This is our dream, although we still have a long road ahead of us. We have to create the membranes first and then test them in real-life conditions to determine how they behave. For example the material may swell, leading to larger pores, and poor separation.”

Timothy: “I want to consolidate on our existing photochemical achievements and build a cost-effective and efficient solar reactor that can actually be used for an industrial process. After all, energy prices will inevitably rise, so any technological solution that uses a source of energy like the sun, which is free and available, has planet-saving potential. I also want to focus more on electrochemical aspects and introduce artificial intelligence and process automation into how we work. We need to cross the divide between chemistry and industry.”

Rohit: “Computational cost and numerical complexity are huge challenges in my field at the moment. Parallel developments in both areas will make it possible to computationally simulate huge, complex systems with an acceptable accuracy. That will also have ramifications in the area of heat transfer and mass transfer.”

image

TU/e is clearly a leading university in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Would you recommend TU/e to other academics looking for research opportunities?

Kitty: “The combined focus on processes and materials makes TU/e the place to be in our field. Furthermore, our lab facilities are among the best in the world. Eindhoven is also a great place to live and the university is well run and offers its staff ample opportunities to develop their careers. The most exciting thing for me is that our students will live in a true circular economy where fully closed-loop recycling is the most normal thing in the world. Chemistry, and our unique flavour of applied chemistry and technology in particular, will make that possible. What could be more rewarding for a research scientist and teacher than being involved in something as important as the sustainable future of our planet? This is what TU/e is all about.”

Timothy: “As I said before, I came to Eindhoven because it is the leading centre for the type of research work that inspires me. I think the mentality of the people in the Netherlands, and in Eindhoven in particular, has a lot to do with that achievement. I’ll never forget seeing a Dutch Olympic competitor crying bitterly because she only won a silver medal. A Belgian, and most other nationalities for that matter, would have been overjoyed. This typifies Eindhoven for me: we want to be the best and work hard to get things exactly right. So I would add the mentality of Eindhoven into the mix of excellent facilities and the close links with industry. It’s definitely the right place for socially committed scientists who want to make a difference.”

Rohit: “I came to Eindhoven because Hans Kuipers is quite simply the best in his field. So I would also recommend TU/e to colleagues because of its professors, as well as the facilities and close links to industry. Another point I would mention is the ready availability of funding, in stark comparison to universities in many other countries: I was fortunate enough to be accepted for a combined public-private research programme.”

WHAT UNRESOLVED QUESTION OR DREAM INSPIRES YOU?

Kitty: “I dream of the next stage in our technological development. The ball started rolling after the industrial revolution – the steam engine, electricity and so on. Everything we have done since has focussed on optimising those early developments. But now you can see the rough outlines of a revolutionary new direction: the circular economy. My kind of science will make that possible.”

Timothy: “I hope to see my chemistry become a recognised milestone that is used in industry and households all over the world. A Noël leaf-based energy generation system that can be scaled at will to suit the application.”

Rohit: “I hope that the areas I have researched will be applied on an industrial scale. At present we have good models that work accurately on an experimental scale; the trick will be to scale them up without losing accuracy. That would make me immensely proud.”

image