NWO stimuleert gebruik van onderzoek

Zonde om de resultaten van wetenschap onbenut te laten, vindt onderzoeksfinancier NWO. Een nieuwe subsidie moet ervoor zorgen dat wetenschappers hun onderzoek niet op de plank laten liggen.

Drie gebieden van NWO doen eraan mee: geesteswetenschappen, maatschappij- & gedragswetenschappen en de aard- & levenswetenschappen. Ze gaan samen anderhalf miljoen euro verdelen onder wetenschappers die hun vondsten graag onder de aandacht van anderen willen brengen, bijvoorbeeld door trainingen of voorlichtingsmateriaal te ontwikkelen.

Daarvoor kunnen ze subsidies van maximaal 40 duizend euro aanvragen. De gebieden verwachten niet dat iedereen op het hoogste bedrag zal mikken en hopen tussen de vijftien en veertig aanvragers per gebied te kunnen helpen.

Het is nog niet duidelijk of de aanvragers per se NWO-laureaten moeten zijn. Bij het ene gebied waarschijnlijk wel, bij het andere waarschijnlijk niet. In oktober verschijnen de details op de websites van de gebieden.

Name: Gianluco Marcotulio
Nationality: Italian
PhD supervisor: Ir. Wiebren de Jong, process & energy laboratory, faculty Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering
Promotor: Prof.dr. Ad Verkooijen, process & energy, 3mE
Subject: Process development for biorefineries
Thesis defense: One year and twenty days to go

PhD student Gianluca Marcotullio (MSc) takes the flask with yellow oily liquid inside from the fume cupboard and offers a sniff. Hmm, not bad, though the smell is indeed hard to pin down. Almonds, he suggests.
This liquid, called furfural, is won by putting woody and vegetal matter in an acidic solution. Hemicellulose, a shorter molecule than cellulose, but like it, part of almost all plant cell walls, easily converts into furfural. From a hundred kilos of non-food biomass you can get around fifteen kilos of furfural and thirty kilos of ethanol. At the process and energy laboratory of the faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering, Marcotullio studies the production process. “There is quite some knowledge available on this, but the production should become more modern and environmental friendly”, Marcotullio explains.

The funny thing is that his most valuable review book dates from 1953. Furfural was first produced on an industrial scale in the 1920s, and research continued until shortly after the Second World War. Furfural was regarded as a versatile molecule suitable for fuel production and as a raw material for the chemical industry. Nylon for example was originally made from furfural until the 1960s, when oil derivatives flooded the market and furfural was forgotten.
Like the fairytale princess Sleeping Beauty, this yellow, oily material was dormant for almost half a century before being rediscovered. Not by a prince, but rather by practical researchers looking for alternatives for the oil-dominated market for fuels and chemical raw materials.

The current market for furfural accounts for approximately threehundred kilo tonnes per year. Furfural is being used as a solvent in the oil industry, for wood impregnation and as a basis for resins production in the casting industry. And although Marcotullio believes the production can be improved through a better understanding of the fundamental kinetics of the process chemistry, he also acknowledges that people are not very interested in improving furfural production, since there is already a production reserve. “In talks with the industry, no interest has been found for investing in improved furfural production facilities”, the Italian researcher observes.

Marcotullio is actually more than half way through his PhD project and is writing articles on his experimental results, which have shown improved yields and better selectivity without using dangerous catalysts or producing lots of waste. But he wants to publish another article that may be a little less scientific but should make clear the potential of very large scale furfural production for liquid fuel production. “Everybody is so focussed on ethanol as a biofuel, that they risk overlooking furfural derivatives, which can be better from many points of view.”

Editor Redactie

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