How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number

June 3, 2002
Volume 80, Number 22
CENEAR 80 22 pp. 42-45
ISSN 0009-2347


An intricate web of associations and programs binds catalysis research in the Netherlands


ALL ABOARD Choosing a central location, a Utrecht mall in this case, makes it convenient for NIOK board members throughout the Netherlands to gather for meetings. Present are Krijn de Jong, Utrecht (hands raised, and proceeding clockwise); C. J. Elsevier, Amsterdam; Dieter Vogt, Eindhoven; Hans Bouma, NIOK secretary; Moulijn, Delft; Leon Lefferts, Twente; Bart Hessen, Groningen; Gerard van Koten, Utrecht; Aart Kleyn, Leiden.

Getting a handle on the organizations and funding structure that make up catalysis research in the Netherlands can be tricky. Government funds are provided by a number of ministries and disbursed through various programs. Universities are often grouped together by projects, even though their expertise lies in distinct areas and the institutions may be physically located at opposite ends of the country. And industry plays a number of roles, including funding university research, providing consulting and advising, and acting as a liaison to government agencies.

The Dutch Institute for Catalysis Research, commonly referred to by its Dutch acronym NIOK, was formed to boost the quality of catalysis education and research in the Netherlands. The organization has become fairly well known in international catalysis circles. Looking back to meetings and discussions among Dutch catalysis professors in the days before the organization was founded, Jacob A. Moulijn, who heads Delft University of Technology's reactor and catalysis engineering group, and Freek Kapteijn, a professor in that group, note that "nearly 15 years ago we realized that we needed to team up to help catalysis research in the Netherlands move to a higher level."

According to the Delft professors, the initial focus was on education--and not just at the undergraduate level. Rather, serious effort was put forth to revamp the catalysis curriculum for Ph.D. students at Dutch universities active in catalysis research.

"There were gaps in the students' education," Kapteijn says. "Some students were physicists and had little background in chemistry or engineering, or they had other gaps in their education. We wanted to provide them with something more than a narrow education about catalyst surfaces, for example."

The discussions of a dozen years ago led representatives of seven universities to form a coalition with a goal of providing a broad education in catalysis to students in the Netherlands. Eventually, the collection of academics created a formal organization, and in 1991, NIOK was founded.

An institution without a campus or even a building, NIOK draws its members from Utrecht University, Eindhoven University of Technology, Delft University of Technology, University of Amsterdam, Twente University, Leiden University, and the University of Groningen. At present, the virtual institute includes just over 100 professors, 46 of whom are full professors; nearly 100 postdoctoral associates; and some 300 Ph.D. students.

A cornerstone of its education program is a national catalysis course taught by NIOK professors to Ph.D. students and some industry scientists. The course, which is offered every other year, is supported by a textbook written specifically to meet NIOK's educational aims. "Catalysis: An Integrated Approach"--the name of both the course and the textbook--covers topics in homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis and biocatalysis, catalytic reaction engineering, and other subjects in applied catalysis. The course also covers chemical kinetics, bonding, and other fundamentals; catalyst preparation and characterization techniques; and other topics.

In addition to the main catalysis course, which was convened most recently last December, NIOK also offers courses on more focused topics such as computational catalysis, catalysis engineering, surface science, catalytic olefin polymerization, and environmental catalysis.

NIOK's other principal activity is coordinating collaborative multidisciplinary research projects in catalysis. Although the terms found in its publications and on its website are heavy with bureaucratic jargon, the explanation of the task is straightforward. One of NIOK's key jobs is to structure itself in a way that makes the organization successful in winning significant research grants from government agencies and other sources.

NIOK's research game plan has several parts. The institute identifies specific areas of catalysis in which its members are recognized authorities. The idea is for each group to focus primarily on its specialties as a way of keeping its skills well honed while avoiding inefficiencies that come from spreading a research group too thin--across too many subjects.


INDUSTRY REPS VIRAN board members (from left) van Buren, Kuijpers, van den Brink, and Moulijn.


TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW ACTS representatives (from left) Gerard van Koten, Alle Bruggink, van den Brink, Louis Vertegaal, and Kuijpers.

ALSO AVOIDED is undue competition. To maximize productivity, the participants have agreed, more or less, to dedicate themselves to research topics that fall within their profile. According to this arrangement, homogeneous and heterogeneous catalytic materials are primarily within Utrecht's domain, for example, and modeling catalytic reactions is Eindhoven's turf.

But even under this agreement, multiple universities form clusters that investigate certain topics collectively. One such research theme is fundamental heterogeneous catalysis. In this example, Eindhoven serves as the focal point, but Leiden, Utrecht, and Twente also contribute to the research effort.

At the same time, NIOK bends over backward to orchestrate multidisciplinary research projects because they have a track record of success and are well received by funding agencies. This type of large-scale collaboration brings together, on a single project, researchers from several universities who focus on separate dimensions.

Some scientists in the Netherlands liken the concept of a virtual national research institute such as NIOK to a decentralized national laboratory in the U.S. The goal is to assemble the right number of people with distinct expertise and collections of equipment and facilities so that major research projects can be tackled effectively. It just so happens that Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, finds itself in a single place in New Mexico while NIOK is spread across a whole country, albeit a fairly small one.

A close working partner in many of NIOK's activities is its industrial advisory board, known by the Dutch acronym VIRAN. "VIRAN is basically a confirmation of the excellent relationship between Dutch industry and universities," says Frederik R. (Frits) van Buren, a VIRAN board member and polyolefins specialist at Dow Benelux. As an example of that relationship, van Buren points to a 12-year government-funded program, known as IOP, in which VIRAN members played a role in advising the research directions of some 80 Ph.D. students.

Presently, VIRAN's members represent 11 companies, including Dutch interests such as Shell, Akzo Nobel, and Avantium Technologies, as well as ExxonMobil, Engelhard, and other non-Dutch companies that have research programs in the Netherlands. The organization is recognized by the Dutch government as the official representative of the catalysis industry in the Netherlands.

Van Buren explains that VIRAN serves as a forum for exchanging information and ideas within the catalysis industry. And it works to coordinate industry's influence on catalysis education and research at Dutch universities. Another key function of the organization is representing the industrial catalysis community in dialogues with government funding agencies.

QUITE A COMBO NRSCC representatives Herman van Bekkum (left), Leeuwen, and Ad Kolen.
Following discussions among industry experts and academics, VIRAN developed research initiatives in topics deemed important to industry and suitable for academic research. The industry group has agreed to supplement government funds with its own contributions to support university research in improving methods for preparing a-olefins and propylene oxide, in developing in situ transmission electron microscopy methods, and in other areas.

VIRAN also works to develop productive relationships with the greater European catalysis community, according to Eugène G. M. Kuijpers, manager of Engelhard's R&D and manufacturing activities in De Meern, the Netherlands. There's a financial incentive to do so, he says, because Central European funding organizations are more easily persuaded to support multinational programs than single-country programs.

"But building cooperation between several European countries is hard work here," Kuijpers remarks, "because our national borders still really do exist--maybe not on highways anymore but definitely in the minds of Europeans."

Funding for scientific research at Dutch universities typically is drawn from three main sources that are referred to as money streams--"geldstromen" in Dutch. The first stream consists of direct research grants to universities from government agencies. The second stream comes by way of government-supported research programs, and the third stream is obtained privately from industry-sponsored research contracts.

Roger Downing, a senior technology adviser with Avantium Technologies in Amsterdam, explains that until recently, government block grants, which were mainly provided by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture & Science, were disbursed through NIOK, IOP, and a few other programs. But according to newly instituted practices for doling out government money, NIOK's block grants are no longer being renewed and the IOP program has been discontinued.

MAPPING THE FUTURE Op den Brouw at the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs.
INSTEAD, a new government-supported program called ACTS (Advanced Catalytic Technology for Sustainability) has been established to fund precompetitive, or nonproprietary, catalysis R&D in Dutch universities for the next seven years. A key change from the previous funding system is that industry and universities are now required to match government grants at the 50% level.

ACTS grew out of a roadmapping exercise that was initiated by Paul M. op den Brouw, a deputy director in the Ministry of Economic Affairs. "For a long time, we've had links in catalysis between universities, companies, and government, but they were always oriented around projects and weren't permanent," op den Brouw says. He adds that similar strategy-planning sessions had been convened previously, but they were too small in scope and lacked collective planning.

"The idea was to use the roadmapping tool to plan for the future of catalysis and to organize the whole field in a way that produces a permanent network for discussions about catalysis research," op den Brouw notes. The road map, which focuses on a 10-year period, took more than a year to complete and was heavily supported by input from industry and academia. A general agreement outlining the report's findings was signed by all major participants this past winter. "We're just at the beginning of an important process," op den Brouw says. "So far, so good."

Officially founded this past winter, ACTS brings together academic researchers with industry and government representatives to conduct investigations at universities on projects that are deemed precompetitive. That constraint, according to Frank van den Brink, a program manager at DSM Research and an ACTS board member, enables several companies to participate jointly, which, in turn, broadens the pool of government funding agencies potentially interested in supporting a project.

ACTS emphasizes sustainable processes because of their wide economic benefits. Advances in a particular catalytic technology, for example, can improve company competitiveness and profitability, which in turn benefits the government through a strong national economy. Van den Brink notes that commerce related to catalytic processes accounts for 3–4% of the Dutch gross national product and that currently some 90 million euros (about $83 million) per year are invested by industry and academia on catalysis R&D in the Netherlands.

According to van den Brink, 35 million euros has already been secured for ACTS's first seven years, and the organization aims to double those funds to maintain a target budget of 10 million euros per year. To date, ACTS has launched two programs. One sets as its goal increasing efficiency and reducing waste in complex-molecule manufacturing by integrating biosynthesis and organic synthesis. The other seeks to develop methods for producing hydrogen from renewable resources.

As though the catalysis organizations scene wasn't busy enough already, new types of collaborative "schools," or virtual institutes, have been formed recently. University of Amsterdam chemistry professor Piet W. N. M. van Leeuwen explains that the National Research School Combination in Catalysis (NRSCC), of which he is director, was organized "to provide a strong catalysis program to arrive at full control of molecular recognition in complex chemical transformations."

Echoing a style that characterizes much of catalysis research in the Netherlands, NRSCC enlists the unique skills of numerous researchers from multiple universities to meet its scientific goals.



NIOK Secretary, History Buff, And A Whole Lot More

"Let's just take a short detour over here," Hans Bouma suggested. We had a minute to spare before my first interview at Delft University of Technology that morning, and here was a chance to snatch 60 seconds of Dutch sight-seeing and trivia. Such opportunities were rare during a busy weeklong tour of catalysis centers in the Netherlands this past winter, and Bouma wasn't about to let me pass it up.

TAKIN' CARE OF BUSINESS NIOK's Bouma near Delft's town hall.
"These tiles are about 100 to 150 years old," Bouma said, motioning to the blue and white decorative ceramic wall tiles at one end of Delft's train station. "But they are an imitation of tiles that were produced in the 17th century by a number of Delft tile manufacturers. One of those companies, Porcelain Bottle, is still around today."

As secretary and deputy director of the Dutch Institute for Catalysis Research, abbreviated NIOK in Dutch, Bouma arranged an action-packed week of meetings and interviews with representatives of several universities, companies, and government agencies involved either directly or indirectly with catalysis research.

Part historian, linguist, and world religion and geography buff, Bouma, 64, has been active in chemical education in one capacity or another for decades. He worked as a high school chemistry teacher, prepared college-age student-teachers for the classroom, and served in various chemical education functions at Free University of Amsterdam. He also cochaired Gordon Research Conferences on chemical education and served for nearly 15 years on the IUPAC Committee on Teaching Chemistry. For the past eight years, Bouma has been the NIOK secretary.

Just recently, Bouma was appointed Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau--a prestigious national honor somewhat akin to being knighted in England. The honor recognizes, in addition to other noteworthy activities, Bouma's service to the Dutch catalysis community.

I ran from lab to lab that day--meeting scientists and conducting interviews--and finally made it to lunch with my Delft hosts. As I left the cafeteria, Bouma quickly ushered me to Delft's Market Square for a quick peek at the town's historic center.

"This is the Nieuwe Kerk--New Church," Bouma said, gesturing to a 16th-century building. "Inside is the grave of William the Silent, murdered here in 1584." Revisiting the topic with me just a few days later, Bouma commented: "By the way, after that murder, there were two more political murders in our country: a double one in 1672, in which two brothers were lynched, and another one just days ago, when Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by a left-wing activist."

Mandatory retirement in the Netherlands at age 65 brings Bouma's formal service to the Dutch catalysis community to an end this month. The guided history tours, however, are likely to continue for quite some time.--MITCH JACOBY

Tradition, team effort, and determination make catalysis R&D in the Netherlands world-class

An intricate web of associations and programs binds catalysis research in the Netherlands

Snapshots of academic and industrial labs reveal diverse program that hits all the bases


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

Tradition, team effort, and determination make catalysis R&D in the Netherlands world-class

An intricate web of associations and programs binds catalysis research in the Netherlands

Snapshots of academic and industrial labs reveal diverse program that hits all the bases

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[C&EN, Jan. 21, 2002]

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