Full of energy, chemist Petra de Jongh talks enthusiastically about her research into catalysis and energy storage, even after a whole day of interviews. And her enthusiasm is catching. De Jongh has already received a Vidi and a Vici grant for the controlled preparation of nanoparticles that make hydrogen storage and catalysis more effective, and was recently awarded an NWO-ECHO grant for the development of better batteries. In 2015, she was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant for her research into catalysts used in the transformation of syngas into fuels and chemical building blocks such as ethanol. Syngas is a mixture of carbon monoxide/carbon dioxide and hydrogen that can be produced not just using fossil fuels but also using solar and wind energy. De Jongh’s research is therefore actively contributing to the sustainability theme at Utrecht University. Her work combines idealism with a passion for exploring materials and chemical processes.
Text: Youetta Visser
De Jongh has gathered a large team of researchers who work on various projects all focusing on catalysis, sustainable energy and the storage of this energy. ‘I believe in diversity and like to employ talented researchers from other parts of the world, where they would find it more difficult to work in research. It gives me great pleasure to supervise young people and to help them become good researchers.’ De Jongh is part of the Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis research group. ‘We have a fairly flat organisational structure. In the lab, dozens of researchers work on all kinds of experiments every day. As research leaders, we provide direction and develop new ideas. Often, an experiment produces an unexpected result, then we spend hours thinking about and discussing how that is possible.’
Collaboration within the university make it possible to invest in expensive, complex equipment, such as the new electron microscopes that were recently installed in the Wied building. ‘Building on decades of research, we are able to produce nanoparticles in a more controlled way and place them in a support – a porous oxide or carbon structure that ensures that they remain stable. We can then test these catalysts in a reactor, at high pressures and high temperatures. These experiments are representative of the much larger-scale industrial processes.’ The research team also carries out experiments at synchrotrons. ‘It is nice that the Netherlands and Belgium have their own station at the European synchrotron in Grenoble. Plus, we are often given time in other particle accelerators such as SOLEIL in Paris.’
Catalysis is widely used to make fuels, plastics and medicines, for example. Every improvement in the preparation of catalysts therefore has a direct effect, for example because less energy and fewer materials are required, or less waste is produced. ‘As far as that is concerned, our research group has a reputation to maintain. My aim is also to make more effective use of sustainable energy sources such as the sun and wind. These sources can be used to make sustainable hydrogen or syngas for transformation into fuels and raw materials for industry, which are currently obtained primarily from fossil sources. I have also taken on the challenge to achieve direct conversion into ethanol. The production of ethanol is already possible using nanoparticles made from rhodium – a rare and expensive metal – but it might also be done using a combination of two different metals such as copper and cobalt. We are testing the effect of the composition of metal nanoparticles, the support structure and the influence of various promoters on catalysis.’
However, De Jongh’s ambitions do not stop there: ‘When writing an ERC grant application, you are allowed to dream. I therefore want to also explore the direct conversion of CO2. That really is a holy grail, and there are still a lot of practical issues.’ The research is relevant and innovative, and De Jongh keeps on discovering new things. ‘The latest discovery is that a battery does not necessarily need to have a liquid component. This makes safer energy storage possible, and is highly relevant in relation to electric cars and the unpredictability of solar and wind power.’ And then she’s off again.