‘Enzymatic polymerisation is a totally new branch of science and technology’, says associate professor Dr. Katja Loos of the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials (ZIAM), the top research school of Groningen University. ‘Most of the enzymes we need for this, we produce ourselves. Biobased now begins to gain acceptance by business, which was not yet the case a few years ago.’
Dutch organisation for pure scientific research NWO rates Zernike Institute (founded in 1970 as Materials Science Centre) as the best of six Dutch top research schools. Times Higher Education even rated the Groningen Institute as the ninth in the world, based on citation index (20 citations per article). Closely after MIT, but better than Princeton, Stanford, Cambridge and UCLA. The institute has a top master course for nano sciences and also hosts a long-standing program for PhD students and postdocs for materials synthesis and molecular and microscopic characterisation. The institute performs fundamental research, but it also has close working relationships with Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI), Top Institute for Food and Nutrition (TIFN), WETSUS Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Water Technology, and the Materials Innovation Institute (M2I). Katja Loos herself has close ties with CCC (Carbohydrate Competence Centre), active in the field of polysaccharides and also based at Groningen University.
Enzymatic polymerisation is Katja Loos’ main subject. She did her studies in Germany, worked in Brazil and the US, but in the end chose to work in Groningen: ‘Because polymer sciences in Groningen are renowned world wide.’ Last year she was appointed a fellow at DPI. An appointment which carries one million Euros for further research. That money is spent on synthesis and characterisation of highly branched polysaccharides (starch plastics), in order to establish structure-property relationships of these intricate polymers. One PhD student studies production methods of these highly defined polysaccharides, and another one characterises them in great detail. This creates a model system for characterisation method improvement. All research is done in close cooperation with DPI.
Two years ago, she received a NWO VIDI prize for innovative research. Katja Loos: ‘It is special to receive a grant for fundamental research and for applied research within several months. It is my philosophy that we need to close the gap between the two.’
Sustainable, energy efficient, selective
According to her, in the long run enzymatic polymerisation will be competitive in plastics synthesis against both physical and chemical methods; moreover it will serve the production of completely new macromolecules. Enzymatic polymerisation’s advantages include much better sustainability in chemical processing (it does not need the use of toxic solvents), higher energy efficiency, a higher stereochemical selectivity, and so on.
As Katja Loos puts it in the introduction of her recent publication Biocatalysis in Polymer Chemistry: ‘Biocatalytic pathways to polymeric materials are an emerging research area with not only enormous scientific and technological promise, but also a tremendous impact on environmental issues.’ But she adds that the first pilot plants for enzymatic polymerisation will not be constructed within several years’ time; commercial plants will have to wait some 20 years. By that time, we will have developed completely new materials and processes.
Courtesy NOM, development agency for the Northern Dutch provinces