Stefaan de Wildeman (41) is aware more than anybody of the disastrous environmental impact of the current generation of fossil fuel-based plastics and is truly concerned by this. This urgency to effect a reversal, also on a public level, is one of the reasons he switched more than two years ago from the business sector to science, from DSM to Maastricht University. A funny coincidence is that his New Biobased Building Blocks group at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus is located at exactly the same place where he did his work as Senior Scientist Biobased Building Blocks for DSM.
How do you experience your first years as a researcher after working eleven years for a multinational?
‘Life here is freer; no corporate structures surrounding you. I come in in the morning with an idea and by the evening that idea can already be starting to walk, so to speak. Currently I have a team of five people: three PhDs and two technicians. Every two weeks we manage to arrive at the first grams of a new building block and we can immediately attempt to make polymer materials with those new building blocks. A lot passes through our hands and that’s a good thing too, because you don’t just find something overnight about which you think: “That works well enough, let’s polish up that one.”’
What building blocks are you aiming at?
‘In the two years of our existence, the project we have worked the longest on is a collaboration with Cosun. We want to make new polymers with sugar derivatives. I can’t say precisely which ones they are, because we are still in the process of covering the IP. A second PhD candidate has been working for six months on a Horizon 2020 project, Robox, which involves making new building blocks with biocatalysis, in order to make polymer materials from them. The third PhD candidate, who has just started, is working on the first InSciTe project and concentrating on C5 and C6 sugars. Two more PhD positions have been promised, one for another InSciTe project, this time involving lignin, and the other one for an AMIBM project.’
Chemelot InSciTe, AMIBM: the ecosystem for stimulating biobased research is starting to prove fruitful?
‘That is certainly the case, although I would have liked to start the projects much earlier. But in the six months we have been at work in InSciTe, I can already see the advantages of this combination of expertise from the business sector and knowledge institutes. There are manifest advantages for both sides. In this case, DSM is able to provide guidance in all kinds of academic investigations, and to do some scouting. And the universities (Maastricht University and Eindhoven University of Technology, eds.) get first-hand verification: what is relevant for later industrialisation and what is not relevant? In that capacity InSciTe functions as a valorisation centre as well. There are a number of projects in which you know almost certainly that you will end up with applications. If you work in that direction, you can also drag along the more fundamental work in that positive spirit. InSciTe focuses on high pressure, high temperature reactions and it has a lovely pilot facility at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus which will shortly be put into use. It is wonderful that you can, or actually have to, make a direct connection from the laboratory where you make the first grams to the way we are going to manage to do it in a pilot plant. You don’t sit in a laboratory doing something you know in advance you can never scale up; that is what is forbidden in InSciTe!’
Do you have the same experience with AMIBM?
‘AMIBM (Aachen Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials, eds.) has a slightly lighter and broader feel about it. It is more a varied collection of professors who approach the matter from their different institutes, with at the front of the chain people who know everything about cloning genes in plants for instance. But they have little idea what applications will look like with the partners at the end of the chain, from textile fibres to plastics for heart valves. With our biochemical and chemical knowledge and colleagues who have enormous knowledge about the chemistry and physics of polymers, we sit in between them and can build a bridge between the front and the end of the chain. The great thing about our work in this construction is that the building blocks necessary for this are more or less hidden in chemical trees, the synthetic connections which can be made between all those molecules. In that tree-thinking – which is really my thing – you unravel what comes from where, what we could still make and what that could be used for. What kind of function could that building block suddenly have in a fibre or another end product?’
Hidden, so those new building blocks already exist?
‘In my inaugural lecture I already claimed that, and I still stand behind that statement. We do not really need inventions to get biobased going. There is an awful lot all around us, more than a century of chemistry. Have a good look around you, select the right things, make a useful combination of them, let chemistry loose on them and make materials from them. Avantium is a good example of this. The literature already described furandicarboxylic acid 115 years ago. Then it stayed quiet for 107 years, until one morning CEO Tom van Aken and his team said: “This has potential, let’s have a go at making a product with it.” That decision in itself gets that dynamic going that you need to make it a success.’
Plenty of ideas, not enough businesses?
‘Exactly: our culture does not have enough of the pragmatism of the Chinese and the daring of the Americans. We still prefer to play it safe in large businesses or big institutes. It is very easy to say, for example, that the fossil-fuel realm of the plastics will never change, that there is only room for drop-ins and it will go no further than that. I refuse to accept that, not only because it is necessary, but also because I believe in it.’
Does that also apply to the research you are currently involved in?
‘The projects in InSciTe as well as AMIBM have huge potential. The same applies to the research we are doing with Cosun. But if you wait a whole PhD cycle – say four or five years – for something to happen with a building block, then often the following question arises: “What exactly are we waiting for?”’