The bright April sun illuminated the majestic Academia building in Groningen: this year’s setting for the ARC CBBC symposium. Guests from all corners of the ARC CBBC community and beyond have gathered in the historic auditorium, which usually is only used for formal occasions. This gave us plenty of reasons to enjoy the memorable stage of our symposium.
The day before the symposium, the ARC CBBC Community Event was organized at the Zernike Campus. This Community Event was focused on giving our PhD-candidates the chance to present their work to their peers, both through presentations and poster presentations. The chemistry between supervisors and researchers curious for answers made for a terrific ambiance and informative presentations, but two of our PhD-candidates stood out in particular. A jury consisting of Jitte Flapper (AkzoNobel) and prof. Rodney Fox (Iowa State University & ARC CBBC Scientific Advisory Board) was appointed to choose their best presentation and the best poster. After some deliberation they found that Sarina Massman (RUG) and Lotte Metz (UvA) had the best presentations of the day. After the well-received community event came to an end, everybody was curious what the next day would have in store for them.
The next day was not only the day of the symposium, but also of the official opening of the brand new ARC CBBC hub lab at the University of Groningen. Because of the special occasion, rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga of the University of Groningen officially opened the symposium. Professor at the University of Groningen and Nobel-prize winner Ben Feringa and chair of ChemistryNL Jacqueline Vaessen were invited to open the new ARC CBBC lab hub. A lab that will help us move towards solving the sustainability challenges of today. Live from the Zernike Campus, broadcasted on the screen in the academia building, they revealed a symbolic acacia tree in front of the Nijenborgh 7 building. Upcoming was a day of both our researchers and academics showing us the intricacies of their research, and panels with multidisciplinary experts discussing how this research relates to the bigger picture.
Collaborate to innovate
Marie Brands from the University of Amsterdam was one of our PhD-candidates that took the stage. She showed us a possible future of a world powered by hydrogen, which would be produced by energy from renewable sources. She asked: “what if we could store our renewable energy in hydrogen gas, and then use it to do our laundry at night?” For those who considered this to be too abstract still she brought her own portable hydrogen installation. If it were up to her, and with her many others, this future will soon become reality.
There are, however, some major challenges on the road to implementing this technology on a larger scale. In a high speed lecture, assistant professor Marta Costa Figueiredo from the Technical University of Eindhoven brought us up to speed on the success and the challenges of these new innovations. These challenges require an approach that involves more than just academia: we need collaboration.
Marie’s hydrogen installation is an example of a problem that appears in many other cases; in order to effectively make a change, all steps of the process must align. This especially holds true, when one is in the stage of upscaling technology, because many practical issues tend to rear their ugly heads. Which is not to mention the legislative and societal issues that arise in this process. All these steps must be taken into account if we want these new technologies to take flight.
An exciting part of the symposium was the addition of three multidisciplinary panel discussions to the agenda. The first discussion was focused on the problems regarding the upscaling of a sustainable industry. Contrarily to the meaning of the word ‘discussion’, these panel experts agreed on one thing in particular: we need collaboration to make innovation work. “If we do not combine all stages of the process, we will not succeed”, Head of Innovation and Technology at Symeres and Managing Director of BioBTX Ton Vries stated. This demand for close collaboration was reinforced by researcher Hung Chien Lin, who was interviewed by his fellow PhD-candidate George Hermens. Hung Chien showed us part of the brand new lab in a virtual lab tour. He especially applauded the added value of the ARC CBBC projects, which always have a clear multidisciplinary approach.
A new way of thinking
To make the transition to a more sustainable world, we will need more than only collaboration. We will need a new way of thinking, and a new way of performing chemistry. For example: what if we can use our waste into a valuable resource? To illustrate this, assistant professor Sebastian Beil from the University of Groningen explained how we can use organic waste, like cheese or coffee, as feedstock for the pharmaceutical industry.
The experts of the second panel discussion gave Sebastian some backup. “Waste does not exist”, Jacqueline Vaessen told the audience. The search towards a way to use our used products as feedstock for new products is ongoing, but there are still many hurdles on the way. The panel of experts, which included the co-author of the latest IPCC-report and University of Groningen professor Klaus Hubacek, agreed that we need legislation that helps us in making this transition. We should also keep looking for ways in which nature can support us in our transition to a more sustainable chemistry. ARC CBBC PhD-candidate Linda Eijsink showed us one possible way to transition. She showcased a manner in which we can use biobased materials like sugar chains as feedstock for natural coatings. This was followed up by researchers Mathieu Lepage and Hanneke Siebe virtually showing us their labs and telling the audience about their research regarding biobased feedstock.
We do not only need a new way of thinking in chemistry, but also in the corresponding industrial processes. We need to mobilize every party involved, which means that we need to create new expectations from all sides. Assistant professor Ina Vollmer from the University of Utrecht pointed out that the entire infrastructure needs to be shifted from linear to circular. Plastics are still very hard to recycle, even though society tries to separate their waste on a large scale. Therefore, not only new ways of recycling are needed, but also a focus on how to differently produce plastics.
In the third panel discussion, professor of environmental psychology at the University of Groningen and co-author of the latest IPCC report Linda Steg elaborated further on this shift in psychology. “People are willing to cooperate, but it should also be feasible”, she said. “Psychologists should be involved not only at the end of a design process, but already at the beginning. Only then their input can be incorporated into the product design”. She gave an example: would we be willing to replace our perfectly transparent water bottles for slightly colored ones if this means that they are easier to recycle? This, again, brings us back to where we started: we need to reevaluate the entire chain of processes and parties involved. We need to align the ambitions, opportunities and challenges of the industry, academia, politics and society to bring our environmental challenges to a good end.
After returning to the academia building, Ben Feringa closed the symposium with some encouraging words. “Seeing all these people collaborating makes me happy, but it also makes me a bit sad. Sad, that I am not young anymore, and that I cannot dive into these challenges myself anymore”, he said. Fortunately, both the Community Event and the symposium showed we have the expertise, drive and practical know-how to solve these challenges. As Ben Feringa said: “This is only the beginning.”