The sun as a common thread through Gerard van Rooij's career
Gerard van Rooij, professor of plasma chemistry at Maastricht University, delivered his inaugural lecture in June. He began his work at Eindhoven, researching nuclear fusion power facilities, which mimic the sun on Earth. His research in Maastricht is focused on transforming solar and wind energy into chemical energy as a source for a sustainable chemical industry.
Plasma chemistry has evolved in tandem with the times. As an energy source, plasmas employ (sustainably) generated electricity rather than fossil fuels. As a result, plasma chemistry can aid in the shift from fossil to green chemistry. Plasma is an extremely heated gas in which molecules separate into their constituent pieces. These pieces can combine to generate new molecules, hence the name plasma chemistry. A plasma frequently emits light. Lightning is an example, as is the small spark that occasionally jumps out of a socket when you unplug a functional appliance.
Photo by: Stan van Pelt
How does one get from nuclear fusion research at Differ in Eindhoven to the new Circular Chemical Engineering research group at the Faculty of Science and Engineering's (FSE) Chemelot Campus? "That largely went without saying," van Rooij adds in the Brightlands Chemelot Campus's Centre Court building. "In Eindhoven, we investigated the formation of small amounts of methane to control unwanted processes between plasma and the wall of a nuclear fusion reactor." This inspired me to investigate the plasma chemistry of the same molecule on a bigger scale, as a raw material for the chemical industry."
While the physicist fired his arrows at methane plasma chemistry, he also witnessed his promotor Ron Heeren causing a stir as a university professor in Maastricht. "When Heeren began working at the MUMC+ numerous of doors opened for him, accelerating his research." I envisioned such a future for myself, and I wanted to be a part of an ecosystem that could help my research move forward. That is why, on the spur of the moment, I approached FSE dean Thomas Cleij with the proposal to establish a research group at the faculty. This proposal fits nicely with the FSE mission because the faculty wishes to contribute to the transition to a sustainable society through research and education, and sustainable chemistry fits right in.” Both sealed their relationship with a solid handshake six months later.
"The fact that as a physicist I can do plasma chemistry as part of the new Circular Chemical Engineering research group is a pretty rebellious decision by FSE," adds van Rooij. "Certainly, as a newcomer, I have a full mandate to go full steam ahead, as I believe it should be." He instantly apologises for his remarks, saying, "That sounds narcissistic, but I don't think I am, especially since my colleagues and research partners always keep me on my toes." In addition to Maastricht University, the plasma research partners include Sitech Services, TNO, and the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. They collaborate as the Brightsite Centre.
Is van Rooij already seeing the benefits he expected to find at Maastricht University? "Certainly, because of the partners' international reputation, my arrival at Maastricht University sparked a lot of international interest." Companies do not want to be left behind in the plasma chemistry race. Furthermore, because of their experience and infrastructure in the field of safety, I am able to do experiments in the university laboratory on the Chemelot Campus that were not possible in the Eindhoven lab."
Methane as a Raw material
Finally, back to what it's all about: using plasma chemistry to make the chemical sector more sustainable. This field of study is far from young. During WWII, German scientists devised a method for producing acetylene gas from methane using plasma. "This process is still operational on an industrial scale," he explains. "We want to improve the process so that we can use sustainably produced methane as a raw material for plasma chemistry, such as from manure or plastic recycling." Methane is more valuable as a chemical raw material than as a fuel. Currently, methane from biomass is primarily burned, releasing CO2. Surprisingly, we do not perceive CO2 emissions from biomass to be a problem, despite the fact that, while at the same time we want less of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.”
CO2 from the air
The professor rose to prominence for his use of plasma chemistry to convert CO2 from the air into more valuable raw materials. Isn’t that an excellent method to reduce CO2 emissions? Van Rooij is in doubt for two reasons: the costs and our hunger for energy. "Using CO2 from the atmosphere to create raw materials or even fuels via plasma chemistry requires ten times the energy of direct usage of electricity in transportation, for example." Furthermore, in our densely populated country, we will never be able to generate enough renewable energy to be self-sufficient while also converting CO2 from the air. Furthermore, using electricity directly as a source of energy is always more efficient than converting electrical energy into other types of energy."
His research, which began by looking into an undesirable effect in a nuclear fusion reactor, has an increasingly bright future ahead. Van Rooij intends his group of researchers to double in size, so that there would be enough personnel to work on the transition to more sustainable chemistry. That is essential in order to make plasma chemistry-based raw material synthesis for the chemical industry a reality by 2050 at the latest. Until then, he will be collecting scientific puzzle pieces to finish the problem.
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