DPI Fellow Katja Loos: Polymers go “green”

30 March 2010

Katja Loos, associate professor at the University of Groningen, has been appointed DPI Fellow. The Dutch Polymer Institute is a top institute in which international universities and companies work together on the next generation of polymers and applications thereof. After Theo Dingemans of Delft University of Technology, Katja Loos is the second "rising star" in the DPI community, having been granted one million euros for research. The actual start of the projects will be negotiated between the Fellow and the DPI management.

"I want to find ways to produce plastic material in an environmentally-friendly manner." This is Katja Loos speaking, associate professor at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials in Groningen. Loos (39) is an expert in the field of enzymatic polymerisation: "Enzymatic polymerisations are environmentally friendly, safe, and efficient alternative to traditional polymerisation methods. They may also lead to higher product yields, fewer undesirable byproducts, and in some cases even to improved and/or unique products. For instance, part of my research group works on the synthesis of polysaccharides. Well-defined polysaccharides are difficult to synthesise. The problem is the complex stereochemistry of the monosaccharide building blocks and the enormous number of possible glycosidic combinations. In traditional organic chemical reactions, you always need to work with a series of protecting groups, but with enzymes you can polymerise well-defined polysaccharides reasonably easily. Here, the advantage of enzymatic polymerisations manifests itself immediately. Of course we're also working on enzymatic polymerisations of 'normal polymers', such as polyester, polyamides, etc."

As a DPI Fellow, Loos is granted one million euros by DPI for her research. She will spend this on the synthesis and characterisation of (highly) branched polysaccharides in order to clarify the structure-property relationship of branched polymers. "The ultimate objective is to translate the newly-gained knowledge on polysaccharides, as a model system, into other polymeric materials. I will appoint one PhD student to create extremely well-defined branched polysaccharides, and another to characterise these polymers. They will be working together very closely. We know exactly what the branched polymers we produce ourselves look like. We can use these model systems to test methods and equipment for unknown polymers."

The enzymes Loos uses for polymerisations have been designed or isolated in-house. "I do of course prefer using enzymes that are available commercially, but that is not always possible." The first steps in Loos' research are to synthesise existing macromolecules in an environmentally-friendly manner. "Yet the fun part is of course creating entirely new polymers through biocatalysis." Scaling up to an industrial level must, in principle, be possible, but has not been undertaken yet, says Loos. "At present, pharmaceutical products are of course produced commercially by means of biocatalysis. However, for the time being, the industry only uses biocatalysis for a large scale production of monomers.

The industrial sector is already showing interest in Loos' project. "Basell, BASF and DSM among others are of course interested in improved characterisation methods of highly branched polymers. When purchasing equipment, I will certainly seek cooperation with existing facilities within DPI. That is the good thing about DPI: the network of people, the methods, and the industry. This helps newcomers such as me feel at home right away."

Loos completed her studies in Germany and worked in Brazil and the United States. When asked why she opted for the Netherlands, she says: "I was offered several positions, but Groningen came out best! During the interview, I immediately clicked with the people. Furthermore, polymer science in Groningen enjoys a truly excellent worldwide reputation." Last year she received a VIDI research grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). "It's wonderful to have received one source of funding for basic research and another for applied research within a four month time span. Bridging the gap between both worlds is exactly my research philosophy."

DPI Fellows are ambassadors of the polymer science community. According to Loos, excellent research, interesting publications and making active contributions to DPI-related conferences are the main thing here. "I want to speak to a lot of people; from small children to industry representatives and academics. My message is: polymers are good and DPI is better." I am of course pleased to see that more and more German companies are becoming affiliated with DPI."