Interview with Arjan Kleij

Arjan Kleij received the 2023 Eucropean Sustainable Chemistry Award (ESCA). ESCA recognises the achievements of individual scientists and teams who make an outstanding contribution to sustainable development by applying green and sustainable chemistry.
Interviewer: Marton Kottmayer,

First of all, congratulations for being the recipient of the European Sustainable Chemistry Award. What are your thoughts on receiving this honour?

It feels absolutely great to have our work recognized by this award. But, above all, the award is for the entire team including present and former members. The award further motivates me personally to train a new generation of scientists with an education focusing on sustainability. I feel proud to be able to contribute to this important objective. I sincerely hope I can persuade more young associates to undertake an academic or industrial career in sustainable chemistry.

You work in the area of CO2 utilisation and especially synthesis and applications of cyclic carbonates. Could you elaborate a bit on your research interests?

Cyclic carbonates have been studied for quite some time but since about 15 years, their preparation has been improved while avoiding the use of harmful reagents such as (tri)phosgene. Nowadays, epoxides and CO2 are typically used to prepare these carbonates, with catalysis being paramount to the observed advances. Our interests have evolved over time from the development of effective and sustainable catalysts towards new synthetic applications in the area of polymer, fine chemical and pharmaceutical science. We have also tried to develop new concepts to amplify the use of cyclic carbonates as chemical intermediates, and we will keep working on this in my group for at least the next five years.

Could you describe the significance of Sustainable Chemistry in this day and age?

I am convinced that sustainable approaches in chemistry are crucial to retain a prosperous and above all environmentally acceptable society. This is reflected in many aspects of our daily life including access to clean water supplies, renewable energy and improving the carbon footprint and circularity of chemical manufacturing. Key to this all is a close collaboration between knowledge producers and commercial parties to maximize the benefit for all of us. I see the principles of green and sustainable chemistry diffusing towards and through various disciplines, making it an invaluable tool for modern scientists.

What do you think the role of chemistry is in solving environmental and societal problems?

Chemistry should play a decisive role in findings solutions for short-, mid- and long-term sustainability challenges we face as a society. For instance, plastic pollution and disposal represent major issues but we can see already that the scientific community is building a knowledge platform centered around chemical recycling of various polymers though catalysis. Now we need to bridge the gap between this knowledge and large-scale plastic recycling, and at the same time involve society as to increase the awareness of the detrimental effects of, for instance, microplastics to our ecosystems.

What do you consider the key achievements of sustainable chemistry?

The area of sustainable chemistry (green chemistry) has long been developed and complemented by giants in the field such as Paul Anastas, John Warner, Roger Sheldon and many others. Their legacy is what is now used as a key tool to detect, analyse and improve the environmental footprint of chemical processes. The latest high-value approximations include life-cycle analysis and applying circular principles, showcasing the importance of the early definitions of green chemistry and its guidelines. Hopefully there is much more to come, but without a doubt the value of all this knowledge is that it lifts and extends the education of younger generations of scientists. It also helps to change the mind-set of experienced ones in the design of new chemical transformations and processes.

What do are the biggest challenges you have faced?

The biggest challenge I faced was changing the research focus of my group at a difficult time that slowed down some of my career prospects, but I am happy that we did it anyway! It gives me a lot of energy seeing that my coworkers are doing well and get excited about the catalysis work we do focusing on CO2 valorization and biobased polymer development. While these are rather big (scientific) challenges, we have learned a lot along the way also thanks to the vivid research communities that supply an ongoing inspiration to do better and makes us considering “outside the box” solutions.

What made you choose this specific area of chemistry?

Well, I participated at a conference in the US and realized through one of the lectures that our Lewis acidic zinc complexes would probably be a good starting point for cyclic carbonate formation from epoxides and CO2. This actually sparked our CO2 catalysis program, and we still benefit from this initiation developing new types of (synthetic) applications of CO2 based heterocycles. Over the years we have extended through novel synthetic methods the repertoire of functional carbonates, and we are still striving towards new discoveries.

What is your advice to young chemists, who want to get involved with sustainable chemistry?

If you are interested in contributing to society through science, developing sustainable solutions for chemicals is something that can and will affect the life of virtually everyone on the planet. I cannot think about a larger direct or indirect impact one can have either via academic (through training) or industrial (implementation) application of sustainability principles.

As this interview is ending, would you like to add anything for our readers?

Science is extremely dynamic, and practical solutions will arise from fruitful collaborations between different stakeholders. Believe in your own approach and research, but challenge yourself. Expose your ideas in different environments and try to be open-minded to receive constructive criticism on how to advance and improve further.

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