Bert Weckhuysen, Professor at Utrecht University, The Netherlands, is renowned as a pioneering and world-leading expert in researching heterogeneous catalysts. During the 49th IUPAC World Chemistry Congress (IUPAC|CHAINS2023) held in The Hague, The Netherlands, he will be honored with the inaugural Chemistry Europe Award, which includes a prize money of 10,000 EUR. The award recognizes his outstanding achievements and leadership in the field of sustainable chemistry and catalysis research.
Here he talks with Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about Chemistry Europe, the chemical community, catalysis, and finding research topics.
What does it mean to you to receive the Chemistry Europe Award?
First of all, I was astonished, happy, and grateful. The thing about scientific awards is that they leave you speechless.
When I received the news, I was in Ghent with my family. It was after New Year’s. We—me, my two children and my wife—came back from a restaurant. I am a bit of a workaholic, so I had my computer with me, opened it, and read about being awarded.
I was happy and it made me silent. There is also some burden on my shoulders now, as it is the inaugural award, which means it is not very well-known yet.
The award is not only given to Europeans or active supporters of Chemistry Europe, but you are very active. What was your first contact with Chemistry Europe? You were named a Chemistry Europe Fellow in the Class of 2015 and are a member of the Advisory Board for ChemCatChem …
… I also served as the Advisory Board Chair of both ChemPhysChem and ChemCatChem, and I was one of the persons involved in the initial discussions to launch ChemCatChem.
First of all, I have to say that I have always felt that we as European chemists need to make sure that we bring our community and our science together. This includes having our own communication channels as the basis of a community. Journals, conferences, and many other ways of communication are tools that help drive a field or progress in a field and connect the researchers. In that respect, I think Chemistry Europe is something very important, and I supported it straight from the beginning in many ways.
Over the years, I’ve always been happy working together with a lot of different people and always learned something. You learn other things about your work, like how to publish research, how to referee someone else’s work, you learn about adjacent fields, and you also learn about your colleagues.
It also taught me that there’s not just academia. I mean, as a professor working with students, you’re doing research in the lab, but there’s a whole other world behind that, chemists who do editorial work in an office or work in science policy, for example. I think it’s very good to be aware of that and to be connected to that world as well.
How do you get your young research team involved in activities that could impact the community at large?
I always try to send young researchers to national and international conferences because I really believe it’s important for their professional development. With the experience gained during the COVID pandemic, we have discovered the benefits of setting up online meetings and virtual conferences. This is an enormous advantage compared to using the telephone, which I hardly use today. And even with phone calls, there are apps available that allow us to talk and see each other at the same time. However, COVID has also shown that physical conferences still offer an essential component of communication that is currently missing in virtual gatherings, namely truly human interactions on science in a very spontaneous manner.
Another thing is that I now have organized what I call “pillar meetings” for the research group. I have two of them in two different fields, one in the area of spectroscopy and microscopy of catalysts and the other one in the area of sustainable chemistry and circular economy. In those meetings, we talk about the things we have been working on for the last few weeks, and I also want to use them to show the students what a professor does. I think when you’re a professor and you’re a certain age, you don’t always know exactly what it’s like in the lab anymore. But it is also hard for students to understand what professors do in general and that leading a research group requires many more things. The best way is to simply show this by sharing some of your own professional life.
Coming back to your initial question: I think it’s important to give students options for different career paths, as not everyone ends up in a professorship. We mainly think of either becoming a professor or going into industry, but there is also the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur, for example, or going into government, banking, politics, or journalism. We need to make sure that students are exposed to different experiences, so that they are really empowered to consider career paths they might not have otherwise thought of but where chemists and scientists are really needed.
What has been the biggest influence or motivation during your career?
The biggest motivation for me is being surprised by science, scientific curiosity, and its potential outcomes. While some may find inspiration in particular individuals, my joy lies in finding and discovering, validating hypotheses, and even in failing in improving a specific scientific hypothesis. I like the whole idea of doing science. That gives me a lot of pleasure.
The second thing is that I’m naturally very curious. So if there’s something where you can really try out what you want to do, it is science. You discover and try to find correlations. I enjoy being like a detective; I like investigating whether a hypothesis is true or false. I don’t have an opinion about whether a hypothesis should be true or not, but starting with a hypothesis and proving it or disproving it, that I like very much.
At the beginning of your academic career, the joy of publishing papers is immensely gratifying. I still remember the excitement of my first paper. I called my mother, not that she had a clue what the paper was all about. It was just the pride of having my first paper accepted that made me want to share the news with her.
Later on, as your career progresses, you, of course, need publications for your own academic career. However, at a certain point it’s like a real switch and your focus shifts towards educating others and helping them in their own progress. I’m actually very proud of my students and find fulfillment in guiding and supporting them, seeing them thrive and grow, witnessing them contributing to society, entering companies, or pursuing various paths after obtaining their Ph.D.s is a source of great pride. Meeting them at conferences and seeing them giving their own talks, I think, “Okay, that’s something special.”
Can you say a bit about your research?
I am back to my detective work. My focus is on elucidating the reaction and deactivation mechanisms of catalytic processes, with the ultimate goal of understanding how they function and how to improve them. However, my main goal is to understand catalysis and its related phenomena, including broad effects like particle size and poisoning, among others. My aim is to uncover the active site and related reaction intermediates and link them together to build up a reaction network. For that I use an analytical toolbox, including various types of spectroscopy and microscopy. The key themes central to my work are “operando”, “multi-scale”, and “multi-tool”. It is only this combination which really can bring us further to understand the fundamentals of catalysis science and technology
I think our research group is one of the very few that really tries to explore the entire range from single atom to single molecule to single particle, up to even a pilot-scale reactor. In other words, we conduct advanced characterization studies at various length scales, from centimeters and millimeters down to micrometers and nanometers.
Another aspect of our approach involves using multiple analytical techniques simultaneously, the multi-toolbox or multi-technique approach. My philosophy is that solving a mystery or understanding a chemical process requires more than one analytical technique. It’s like piecing together a puzzle, where combining different elements of information gives insights into how things operate. A final and crucial aspect is that we really wish to study catalytic processes under relevant reaction conditions. About twenty years ago we coined the name “operando spectroscopy” to stress the importance of studying solid catalysts at their working place. This approach almost literally implied to bring the spectrometer or microscope to the catalytic reactor. These three things are the central pieces of our research work.
I’m also trying to understand relevant processes, which leads me to investigate biomass, plastic waste conversion, and environmental chemistry. In the past, I mainly focused on hydrocarbon activation, currently, my work involves amongst other topics Fischer–Tropsch synthesis, alcohol-to-hydrocarbon conversions, and the Sabatier process.
So the specific catalyst systems we study may change over time. As I develop new analytical tools, I can return to previous problems and apply these techniques under operando conditions. Despite this evolving nature of my research, the main topic remains rather constant: using spectroscopy and microscopy to better understand the functioning of catalysts. This approach allows me to remain independent of passing trends or popular topics in the field.
How do you discover and prioritize your topics or ideas to determine which ones are essential and worth pursuing?
What I’m trying to do when new fields, like plastic recycling and upcycling, sustainable aviation fuels, and CO2 catalysis, emerge, is to ask general, significant questions in catalysis and apply them to these new areas of research. By doing so, I address specific topics within buzzing fields and use our analytical toolbox accordingly.
I think research should always be guided by broader scientific questions. For instance, when dealing with metal nanoparticles, I’m interested in questions like their appearance under reaction conditions and how different metals interact, and hence alloy and de-alloy, as well as surface and subsurface phenomena relative to the core parts of a metal nanoparticle. This blends physical chemistry with heterogeneous catalysis. Similarly, when exploring biomass or plastic waste compared to crude oil, my focus is on various impurities in the feedstock and their effects on catalysis.
This also means that you need continuity in your research. You have to work in a specific direction for years and build upon it. Of course, you must also be flexible, considering, for example, the various waves of funding, but you should certainly establish your own line of research. If you jump from one topic to another without any true connection, you won’t have a clear scientific profile and that does not help you further in your scientific career.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in the field of catalysis?
I think it’s mastering complexity. Materials are often multi-component and have hierarchical structures, which enables their functionality. The main challenge is understanding and controlling this complexity while creating new catalyst materials for transforming our society towards a more sustainable and circular one.
Achieving this level of understanding and acquiring full control over this complexity is crucial because it allows for a faster transition from current feedstocks to alternative ones, such as plastic waste, biomass, and CO2. To speed up the development of new chemical conversion processes, we can use different approaches like theory and AI. However, our research focus is on using spectroscopy and microscopy to understand materials better and find proper ways to further improve them or design entirely new ones.
How is catalysis connected to other research fields?
Catalysis is per definition multidisciplinary. It’s not only organic or inorganic chemistry, nor is it only physical, materials, or analytical chemistry. It is a complex mixture of various fields of chemistry.
However, we also have to recognize the importance of engaging with other disciplines, such as social sciences. We forget sometimes that we can have a fantastic catalyst or a fantastic whatever chemical process, but their ultimate success will depend on its social acceptance. We have seen how public perception can shape discussions and outcomes.
What do you think a young chemist should bring to the table besides knowledge of a particular subject?
I think that connections are extremely important, so, people who can communicate and bridge different fields. They have to have, as they always say, the T-profile. The vertical line is the disciplinary area and the horizontal line is the multidisciplinary area. The question is how long is one and how long is the other line of the T. We have to find the right balance for that that and the task of a professor is to sufficiently help the young chemist to shape both lines of the T-profile. That is far from a trivial task as students have to dare to explore areas where they are much less familiar with.
A good picture.
What are you doing outside the lab and how do you balance your work life?
I think that’s a very good question. I’d say you’d have to particularly ask my wife and my children to answer this question. I think that it is fair to say it is a very demanding job.
I run; I run half marathons. I also like photography. I like to travel with my family, but I also have to admit that I’m a workaholic. So I think if I were to make a statement here about my work life balance and my wife were sitting here next to me, she would be more likely to say, okay, yes … [laughs]
Thank you very much for the interview and, again, congratulations on receiving the Chemistry Europe Award.
Bert Weckhuysen, born on July 27, 1968 in Aarschot, Belgium, studied agricultural and chemical engineering at Leuven University, Belgium, where he received his Ph.D. under the supervision of Robert Schoonheydt in 1995. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow with Israel Wachs at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA, and with Jack Lunsford at Texas A&M University, College Station, USA.
In 2000, Bert Weckhuysen joined Utrecht University, where he became a Professor in the Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis group. In 2012, he was appointed as a Distinguished Professor at the Faculty of Science, and since 2018, he has held the title of Distinguished University Professor.
- 2023 Chemistry Europe Award
- 2018 Robert B. Anderson Award
- 2017 Kozo Tanabe Prize for Acid-Base Catalysis
- 2015 Knighthood in the Order of the Dutch Lion
- 2013 Spinoza Award
- 2011 Paul H. Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis
- M. Monai, K. Jenkinson, A. E. M. Melcherts, J. N. Louwen, E. A. Irmak, S. Van Aert, T. Altantzis, C. Vogt, W. van der Stam, T. Duchon, B. Smid, E. Groeneveld, P. Berben, S. Bals, B. M. Weckhuysen, Restructuring of titanium oxide overlayers over nickel nanoparticles during catalysis, Science 2023, 380, 644.
- J. Xiao, K. Cheng, X. Xie, M. Wang, S. Xing, Y. Liu, T. Hartman, D. Fu, K. Bossers, M. A. van Huis, A. van Blaaderen, Y. Wang, B.M. Weckhuysen, Tandem catalysis with double-shelled hollow spheres, Nat. Mater. 2022, 21, 572.
- C. Vogt, B. M. Weckhuysen, The concept of active site in heterogeneous catalysis, Nat. Rev. Chem. 2022, 6, 89.
- T. Hartman, R. G. Geitenbeek, G. T. Whiting, B. M. Weckhuysen, Operando monitoring of temperature and active species at the single catalyst particle level, Nat.Catal. 2019, 2, 986.
- F. Meirer, B. M. Weckhuysen, Spatial and temporal exploration of heterogeneous catalysts with synchrotron radiation, Nat. Rev. Mater. 2018, 3, 324.
- C. Vogt, E. Groeneveld, G. Kamsma, M. Nachtegaal, L. Lu, C.J. Kiely, P.H. Berben, F. Meirer, B. M. Weckhuysen, Unraveling structure sensitivity in CO2 hydrogenation over nickel, Nat. Catal. 2018, 1, 127.
- I. L. C. Buurmans, B. M. Weckhuysen, Heterogeneities of individual catalyst particles in space and time as monitored by spectroscopy, Nat. Chem. 2012, 4, 873.
- E. M. van Schrojenstein Lantman, T. Deckert-Gaudig, A. J. G. Mank, V. Deckert, B. M. Weckhuysen, Catalytic processes monitored at the nanoscale with tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, Nat. Nanotechnol. 2012, 7, 583.
- B. M. Weckhuysen, Chemical imaging of spatial heterogeneities in catalytic solids at different length and time scales, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2009, 48, 4910.
- B. M. Weckhuysen, Determining active sites in catalytic materials: Operando spectroscopy is more than a buzzword, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 2003, 5, 4351.