Utrecht University collaborates with Groningen University, Eindhoven University of Technology and partners from the chemical industry in the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC). A prominent role is played in this by the consortium’s coordinator, Utrecht University.

Greenifying chemistry

Currently, the chemical production industry is walking a tightrope: providing for today’s need for innovation, acceleration and comfort without compromising the demands of tomorrow is a daunting task indeed. This is where consumer concerns, political ultimatums, industrial demands, and scientific curiosity need to converge. We need to make a concerted effort in reconsidering the materials and production routing currently in use and reinventing the way in which chemistry is applied on an industrial scale.

Industrial production can be made sustainable, and ARC CBBC has the best people on board to learn how to do this. They are currently engaged in rethinking the design of the chemical building blocks that make up the products of our everyday lives and the convenience they bring us.

Through ARC CBBC, we are able to connect excellence in science with the corporate community in order to attain long-term and semi-long-term solutions for the difficult problems facing our society.

The consortium investigates the routing of our manufacturing processes and the use of chemical products and processes, and examines this with a critical eye. This public-private organization, founded in 2016, unites universities, researchers, businesses and ministries and facilitates their close collaboration in multidisciplinary chemical, physical, materials and process technology research. All with a single goal: to provide the world with the molecules of the future.

ARC CBBC tackles the challenges of ‘greenifying chemistry’ in multilateral and bilateral programmes based on three themes: the materials transition, the feedstock transition and the energy transition. The topics addressed by their research are examined by interdisciplinary teams, each of which has the appropriate expertise at its disposal, provided by postdoctoral researchers and PhD candidates. 

The importance of the feedstock and materials transitions

The energy transition has become a major point of interest in our modern-day society. ARC CBBC, however, considers the feedstock and materials transitions to be equally important. In order to ensure the success of all three transitions, we must look at them integrally. Our materials must be adapted to make them more durable, to expand their functionality, and to facilitate their recyclability at the end of their useful life. At the same time, we need to explore the possibility of using other feedstocks to produce our materials, and examine alternatives for the use of fossil fuels in our manufacturing processes, such as biomass or even CO2.

We should consider our waste collection trucks a source of feedstock.

Maartje Otten is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, and is currently engaged in an ARC CBBC research project that focuses on the recycling of plastics. Her research, in which she is collaborating with companies from the chemical industry such as BASF, Shell and Nobian, explores the possibility of breaking down plastics to their original building blocks in order to use these to manufacture new products, which new features to serve new purposes. The combination of academic need-to-know and the industrial need-to-have in this project results in a unique link between fundamental research and its application, thus bringing the feedstock transition one step closer.

Unique structure

ARC CBBC is an open consortium, founded on the principles of academic need-to-know and industrial need-to-have, in which neither is inhibited by the other. They have academic knowledge, boundless curiosity and horsepower at their disposal, while their industry partners warrant the need for practical application and provide the requisite materials and equipment. Together, they have the capacity to accelerate circular solutions within the chemical industry.

Their hubs play a key role in their ambitions. ARC CBBC, intrinsically a virtual institute, revolves around three university hubs. Each of these employs academic as well as technical staff, and has state-of-the-art equipment at its disposal. The University of Groningen (with a focus on homogeneous catalysis), Eindhoven University of Technology (with a focus on process technology) and Utrecht University (with a focus on heterogeneous catalysis) have all provided ARC CBBC with lab space, financial support and human resources. This is represented not only by the ultra-modern equipment, but also by ARC CBBC’s team of technicians and ARC CBBC-specific tenure-track assistant professors, engaged specifically to contribute to our mission.

Why don’t we use nature as a source of inspiration?

Working at the Utrecht University hub lab, ARC CBBC PhD candidate Mirjam de Graaf draws her inspiration from nature. Plants use sunlight to power chemical reactions and make useful products such as glucose, so why don’t we do this as well? In conjunction with AkzoNobel, she is conducting research on the production of coatings that make use of photocatalytic materials: materials that use light to break down harmful substances in the air and, by doing so, render them harmless.

This is only an example of ways in which the functionality of paint and coatings can be improved. Can we make them more durable, or give them self-repairing properties? Can we make useful carbon materials as a side product, instead of the harmful CO2we emit? Can we study, construct and improve catalysts, and even go so far as to convert CO2 into useful chemical building blocks? Can we develop new research tools to make our work easier to perform? Taking all of the above into consideration, ARC CBBC combines academic and industrial expertise with a view to facilitating future innovation.

The ARC CBBC Utrecht University hub lab is located in Vening Meinesz Building C at the Utrecht Science Park. Feel free to stop by sometime to see their work with your own eyes!