A brand new electron microscope is soon to be installed in the Science Park in Utrecht. Chemistry professor Krijn de Jong, assistant professor Jovana Zecevic and their research team will be using the microscope to record for the first time ever the controlled formation of supported nanoparticles in the liquid phase that make catalysis possible. This is high-risk research, yet the ERC took up the challenge and supported the funding application.
Calalysts are materials that are used to accelerate and steer chemical reactions. Perhaps the most well known example is the catalytic converter found in almost every car. The chemical reactions are accelerated on the surface of nanoparticles in the tiny channels which makes exhaust gas emissions much cleaner. The most large-scale use of catalysis is in the petrochemicals industry. In the chemicals sector, catalysis is used to produce everything from plastics to pharmaceuticals. There are more nanoparticles in a large chemical manufacturing plant than there are stars in the universe. New applications are often in the field of sustainability, for example in solar panels. However, up to now it has never been possible to image in real time with nanometer resolution the controlled formation of nanoparticles for catalysis in the liquid phase.
Recipe for catalysis
Professor De Jong has spent his entire career exploring catalysis: "Up to now, catalysis has been like a recipe, bringing together the ingredients we are familiar with. In this research we are using techniques from high-tech electronics in an improved form to manipulate the nanoparticles for catalysis with great precision. We are using extremely thin parallel channels in which we can grow nanoparticles of platinum and cobalt, for example; this enables us to observe the real time dynamics of nanoparticles genesis. We are also attempting to control the catalysis, elevating this from an art to a science."
"Up until now, catalysis could only be imaged under very low gas pressure, almost vacuum. For the very first time we are using an ultra-thin liquid cell which the electron bundle can pass through, enabling us to observe the nanoparticles genesis." This research requires knowledge of chemistry and physics and new equipment with a specially developed microscope and cell in a suitably prepared room. "In order to minimise disturbance from vibrations, we are installing the microscope in the basement of the David De Wiedgebouw."
A robust research plan
The research will be carried out in four stages and adjusted along the way in response to the findings. "What Dr Jovana Zecevic already observed in an exploratory experiment, that the shape of the nanoparticles changes as the electron bundle passes through the thin layer of water, was something that no-one had expected." In order to protect the results of his research, Professor De Jong has applied for many patents. "However, the best protection for this kind of research is to publish. That way your group is publicly bound to the research."
After fifteen years in the business sector, De Jong made a conscious choice to enter the world of academia: "My main goal is to train up young people to become good researchers. This is high-risk research, but it is also robust; even if things go differently than we had planned, we will still achieve remarkable results that we can publish internationally and, even more importantly, that young people can use for their PhD research."
De Jong's team is part of the Catalysis research group that has already been awarded four ERC grants. "These awards are a confirmation of our aspirations and make it possible for us to attract top-class researchers."
Written by: Youetta Visser