Utrecht University launches new Institute for Sustainable and Circular Chemistry

‘Reinventing chemistry for a sustainable future’

As of 1 September, Utrecht University has a new research institute: the Institute for Sustainable and Circular Chemistry. Firmly rooted in chemistry, ISCC seeks collaborations outside the field to contribute to the sustainability transition, with a focus on molecules and materials for circularity.

Prof. Isabel Arends, Dean of the Faculty of Science, comments: “The importance of sustainability-related research cannot be overstated. At Utrecht University, we’ve built a strong foundation in chemistry-focused circularity research over the years. From my own background in sustainable organic chemistry, I can underline the importance of this new institute, which celebrates how far we’ve come and enables us to expand even further in this direction.”

Through both fundamental and more applied chemistry research, the institute takes on the energy, resource, and materials transitions. “These transitions require us to reinvent chemistry and chemical processes,” says Prof. Eelco Vogt, one of the full professors at ISCC and scientific director of the new institute. “By combining our research groups in inorganic and organic chemistry, ISCC is equipped to make and measure new materials and processes, employing a combination of synthesis and spectroscopy.”

When I first heard about the plans for the new institute, something really clicked for me.

Maartje Otten, PhD candidate

Research within ISCC expands on Utrecht expertise in chemistry strongholds such as catalysis, synthetic chemistry, and analytical chemistry, including spectroscopy, microscopy, and environmental chemistry. To ensure that the fundamental and more applied science efforts connect well to the societal needs, the institute will provide the means to connect to other disciplines, across faculties and beyond academia. Prof. Vogt adds: “We are a chemistry institute at our core, but what makes us unique is that we include the societal context. This systems approach is necessary for studying the complete process of design, synthesis and analysis of molecules and materials in integrated systems.”

Twee studenten aan het werk in een scheikundelaboratorium

New generation of chemists

Though primarily aimed at research, ISCC also has ambitious plans for education. “We’re developing a new Master’s programme in sustainable and circular chemistry,” says Prof. Vogt. “One that is unique in the Netherlands, with systems thinking built into the core of the programme. We’re facing big transitions that require complete production cycles to be redeveloped, so we need to train chemists that do not only look at molecules and materials, but also understand the whole system of legal, environmental, and social requirements. We need people who function well in multidisciplinary teams: fully versed in chemistry, but with a good understanding of other fields such as data science and artificial intelligence. The chemist of the future is intrinsically motivated to bring about change.”

Maartje Otten, PhD candidate at ISCC, is one of these chemists of the future. “When I first heard about the plans for the new institute, something really clicked for me. My Master’s in chemistry was super interesting, but it was a very ‘classical’ version of chemistry. I was missing a bigger picture, the idea of contributing something to society, so I wasn’t sure if that was the right fit for me. Fortunately, I got the chance to do a very cool PhD about recycling and upcycling plastics with Prof. Pieter Bruijnincx. There’s such a strong vision on sustainability and circularity behind the project, and that’s exactly what I had been missing before. The new institute and Master’s programme are very much in line with that development. So far, Utrecht is quite unique in that respect.”

We are a chemistry institute at our core, but what makes us unique is that we include the societal context.

Prof. Eelco Vogt, scientific director ISCC

Complementary institute

Utrecht University’s chemistry research was previously divided between the more physics-oriented Debye Institute for Nanomaterials Science and the life sciences-oriented Bijvoet Centre for Biomolecular Research. In focus and approach, ISCC is highly complementary to the other research institutes, offering many opportunities for collaboration. Some of the ISCC scientific staff will remain co-affiliated with the Debye Institute.

Founding members of ISCC are the research groups Inorganic Chemistry & Catalysis and Organic Chemistry & Catalysis, and the members of the Utrecht hub of the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC). After taking some time to get settled, the institute will accept new members from outside the founding groups starting from fall 2023.