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Third time's a charm: ERC Advanced Grant for Marc Koper

Electrochemist Marc Koper has been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of 2.5 million euros for research into chemical reactions driven by electrodes and electricity. He hopes that new insights will make it into the textbooks and help design green processes, such as making fuel from greenhouse gas.

'It was certainly a very happy announcement,' says Marc Koper, Professor of Catalysis and Surface Chemistry. 'With the ERC Advanced Grant, the chance of acceptance is around ten per cent. I was hopeful, but you have to wait and see. The competition is simply tough. I have submitted two previous proposals and only the third was successful.'

The importance of electrochemistry

Koper researches electrochemistry: chemical reactions driven by electricity and electrodes of metals such as platinum and iridium. A classic example of such a reaction is the electrolysis of water, in which oxygen is produced at one electrode and hydrogen at the other.  

Electrochemistry may be far removed from everyday life, but industry produces caustic soda and chlorine from simple table salt. In Rotterdam's Botlek district, electrolysis plants produce 800 million kilos of chlorine gas annually, which is indispensable in the manufacture of toilet cleaners, mattresses and rain pipes. 'Electrolysis of seawater to make hydrogen as a fuel is also receiving a lot of attention at the moment,' says Koper. 'And a lot of research is being done on the electrolysis of carbon dioxide and water to make fuel or chemicals.'

Theory seems wrong

The ERC proposal deals with matters that are still not understood: what exactly happens in the boundary layer where the electrode and the solution come into contact? 'There has always been a tendency to look primarily at the surface of the electrode, but I want to understand the role played by the electrolyte, the solution with ions. Once we understand that better, you can ask the second question: how does that interplay affect the reaction rate? I am not the first to ask these questions, but there is still surprisingly little understanding. Last year, we carried out several experiments that showed that the prevailing theories are not entirely correct. I took that research as the starting point for the proposal.'

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Tiny needle

With the ERC's 2.5 million euros, his group can appoint four PhD candidates and three postdocs over the next few years. They will use all sorts of techniques to study the electrochemical phenomenon: an AFM microscope that uses a tiny needle to map the boundary layer near the electrode, for example. Another technique examines the reaction from a distance using a beam of X-rays.

From knowledge to application 

Together with electrical measurements, all these data should provide a better picture, says Koper. 'We are also going to process these data in modelling studies and computer simulations. I suspect that if we have a better understanding of the mechanisms, we can also improve electrochemical processes in practice. My interest lies mainly in answering scientific questions, but in electrochemistry, concrete applications are always close at hand.' 

Sustainability 

According to Koper, electrochemistry still offers plenty of new opportunities. Think of the production of raw materials that we currently manufacture with a lot of heat and energy from petroleum. Chemists are researching how they can convert carbon dioxide directly into alcohol, for example. 'It would be great if we could eventually replace contemporary chemistry with a process that uses renewable raw materials, green electricity and low temperatures.'

One of the more recent ideas is making ammonia from wastewater with nitrate. This would be a useful alternative to the production of artificial fertiliser, and at the same time would solve a huge waste problem. 'Electrochemically speaking, the reduction of nitrate to ammonia is not that complicated, but a lot of work is still needed to make the process economically profitable.

New opportunity

Koper hopes in the first place that his new research will yield knowledge that eventually will find its way into the textbooks. 'Nowadays, the free space for pure scientific curiosity is a luxury. I do have some opportunities to tackle interesting fundamental questions, but not nearly everything. I get that opportunity thanks to this proposal.'

Text: Arno van ’t Hoog  

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