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“Green chemistry” is a chemist’s way of looking at the world

Prof. David Kubička

In this interview, David Kubička discusses how he enjoys setting things in motion, thus perhaps inspiring others. Kubička is, among other things, a newly appointed Professor, recipient of the 2023 UCT Prague Rector’s Prize for outstanding R&D results, and the President of the European Federation of Catalysis Societies. Because I frequently meet with him in his role as Vice Dean for External Relations at the Faculty of Environmental Technology, I can state with confidence that “perhaps inspiring” in the first sentence of this paragraph is redundant.

The end of last year must have been very rewarding for you. First, the President of the Czech Republic presented you with professorial status, and the following week, you received the UCT Prague Rector’s Award for outstanding R&D results.

It sure came together nicely (editor’s note: Kubička smiles). On the one hand, it was an honour; on the other hand, it means a big commitment. Although at first glance it seems as if the honours were mine alone, it is also a kudos to the outstanding work of my colleagues and students and, at the same time, a recognition of my family’s incredible support. Here I see myself more as the tip of the iceberg.

Speaking of presidents, you became one yourself: specifically, President of the European Federation of Catalysis Societies. What do you do as President? How do you feel about being elected?

I was in shock for some time after being elected. I attended the Prague’s EFCATS Council meeting with my head full of details for the Europacat 2023 conference that was to start that very afternoon. To my surprise, my colleague from Poland, Prof. M. Witko, with whom we, together with colleagues from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, organized the Prague conference, nominated me as a candidate. It was an even bigger surprise when I was actually elected. In retrospect, I see this as a tremendous vote of confidence, probably for how we organized the Europacat conference together with the positive conference vibes. So my election honours everyone who helped organize Europacat2023.

Fortunately, being EFCATS President does not require work every day. The six-member (including me) EFCATS steering committee us responsible for the selection of summer/winter schools on catalysis that EFCATS funds, we monitor preparations for the next Europacat 2025 conference (Trondheim, Norway), and we are preparing the call for applications for the organizer of Europacat 2027. Last fall, we had to hastily amend our statutes, and this spring, I have a meeting with the EFCATS awards sponsors in various categories, which will be awarded to leading catalysis scientists. This fall, we will announce nominations for these awards and select recipients.

In your research, you are dealing, among other things, with the use of heterogeneous catalysis for the transformation of substances obtained from biomass processing into advanced biofuels and chemicals. The field of biofuels is surrounded with controversy in the eyes of the general public, who greet it with mixed feelings ranging from enthusiasm to complete rejection. What is the scientific and commercial reality?

You’re right, people’s feelings are all over the place, and everyone seems to feel they understand the dynamics best. From a research perspective, the use of biomass, both for chemicals and biofuels, remains a hot topic. The key is understanding biomass conversions, or substances obtained from conversions, to substances that we are able to use again and perhaps replace with them products that are made from oil today. From my point of view, biofuels research has been a springboard that has accelerated research activities. Thanks to the size of the motor fuel market and the drive to introduce biofuels, there’s ample funding available for research in this area. Other areas are now benefiting from biofuels research findings, such as the production of chemicals from biomass using catalytic technologies.

Biofuels are emotionally associated with the endless fields of canola blossoming everywhere in the spring, distilleries instead of sugar mills, and the instabilities caused by subsidy incentives. The resentment against the so-called first-generation biofuels has been transferred—in my opinion wrongly— to the entire field of biofuels. However, for example, biofuels ideally produced from various waste vegetable oils and animal fats have gained commercial traction, despite being more expensive than other options. In addition to the obligation to add biofuels to motor fuels, they have significantly higher quality and they do not contain sulphur or aromatics and are thus significantly more environmentally friendly than the alternatives. If we continue to need to fly to go on vacation, the hydrocarbons produced in this way represent the best (i.e. the least burdensome to the environment) solution. This is reflected in the steep increase in production capacities and the use of all available waste sources. If we leave aside transport that can be electrified, for all other means of transport, biofuels are certainly a more viable solution than “e-fuels” that are trendy these days.

What specific topics do you focus on with your GreenCats research group?

Our group is mainly interested in heterogeneous catalysts and their use for selective transformations of substances obtained from biomass. We try to understand the relationships between a catalyst (its composition, structure, and properties) and its behaviour in a chemical reaction (its activity, selectivity, and stability). Typically, these are hydrogenation and hydrogenolysis reactions, which allow us to control the oxygen content of the products, as well as condensation reactions, thanks to which we are able to control the molecular weight and structure of the products. Our current favourite reactants are 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, furfural, guaiacol, anisole, and fatty acids.

The research scope is thus quite varied. On the one hand, we prepare our own catalysts (not just with relatively simple modification of suitable commercially available supports), but we also synthesize the supports in order to gain maximum control (not only over the composition of the catalyst, but also over its structure and especially its properties). This is absolutely essential. Small variations lead to changes in properties, e.g. due to specific interactions between the support and the active metal component, often with a substantial impact on the composition of the products. Our effort is directed to keeping the composition of the products under control so that we obtain only the desired products, minimizing the number of products arising from the ever-present side reactions. In order to be able to interpret these changes, in addition to the synthesis, we also deal with a detailed characterization of the physicochemical properties of the synthesized catalysts. We handle some of the characterizations ourselves; for others, we collaborate with colleagues both from the UCT Prague Central Laboratories and from other UCT Prague departments. Without their help, it would definitely not be possible, because the scope of the necessary characterizations not only exceeds the capabilities of a small research group like GreenCats, but also UCT Prague’s capabilities. So we cooperate with a number of other colleagues both in the Czech Republic, e.g. at the University of Pardubice’s Department of Physical Chemistry or the Technical University of Ostrava’s Institute of Environmental Technology, and abroad, e.g. ITQ Valencia (Spain), NIC Ljubljana (Slovenia), the University of Leipzig (Germany), Åbo Akademi University (Finland), and many others.

On the other hand, we devote ourselves to detailed testing of the transformations of our selected reactants in flow-through and batch reactors in a relatively wide range of temperatures and pressures. The aim is not only to successfully (i.e. selectively) convert the reactants into the desired products in high yield, but also to obtain information about the rate of individual transformations and the change in the reaction rate over time, i.e. to find out whether the activity of the catalysts is stable or whether there is too rapid deactivation. Thanks to this data, we can go back to the beginning—that is, to synthesis and characterization—to continue to improve the catalysts. Our dream is, of course, to discover a definite relationship between the properties of a catalyst and its performance. But that rarely happens. Mostly it’s about clues and their interpretation.

The name of your research group includes the word “green”, referring to green chemistry. How would you define “green chemistry” (which is also the name of a UCT Prague course you created)?

I often compare “green chemistry” to philosophy. It is a way that a chemist (or chemical engineer or technologist) views the world. In the past, the main motivation was to produce a desired product. Today, the emphasis is on producing a product efficiently, with minimal energy costs and without waste or by-products. And that is “green chemistry”. Added to this has been the effort to use available renewable resources (that is, to minimize fossil fuel resource use) and to avoid the use of dangerous chemicals as key aspects of minimizing the environmental and health impacts of day-to-day production—not just focusing on possible accidents.

You created and introduced a new international study programme entitled “International Master in Technology and Management for Circular Economy (IMATEC)” that hundreds of people from all over the world applied for. Did you expect this kind of demand?

Truth be told, I didn’t expect it. Due to the high demand, we met many interesting people during the student selection process, many of whom we could not accept into the programme because of limited capacity and finances. The high demand reflects both the fact that it is a very trendy topic and also the fact that it is an Erasmus Mundus programme, so students can get a scholarship and study at at least three great European universities. It is clear that without the scholarships, there would be much less interest, because without it, many students would not be able to afford to study in Europe, and that would be a great shame. However, I will repeat myself again: it takes a village to do something like this. Preparations for the IMATEC programme began thanks to an inspiring discussion with Prof. J. Bartáček in Singapore and was the result of hard work both by us at UCT Prague and colleagues in Spain and Finland. I think that our advantage was that we all know each other well, and we turned research topics that we enjoyed into a curriculum design project. Again, I cannot imagine that this could have happened without the great work and commitment of the UCT Prague Department of International Relations. After all, processing and evaluating almost 300 applications really takes a lot of work.

And what will the skills profile of programme graduate look like?

Graduates will acquire chemical engineering and chemical-technological knowledge in environmental technologies with an emphasis on their sustainability and the use of renewable raw materials. They will then combine these technical skills with managerial and economic competencies that will enable them to become true circular economy experts who can realistically assess commercial technologies not only from a technical, but also from economic, legislative, and environmental points of view.

Let’s go back for a moment to the beginning of your professional career. After graduating from UCT Prague, you worked for two years in the Chemopetrol (now ORLEN Unipetrol) research centre and then you returned to academia for four years by conducting your doctoral studies in Finland, after which you returned to Chemopetrol. Can you elaborate a bit on that period?

I was interested in research, but I didn’t want to be in academia at that time. So, my wife and I moved to Litvínov after finishing our studies and joined the Chemopetrol R&D Centre in Záluží. I started a “combined form” of doctoral studies and about a year later, as part of a restructuring effort, the research centre was placed under the Research Institute of Inorganic Chemistry. My supervisor at the time, Prof. J. Hanika, brought up the possibility of a summer internship abroad. Of the options we discussed, Finland appealed to me the most. During the summer internship, working on hydrogenation of sugars at Åbo Akademi University, I got an offer to join a research team for a doctorate related to a project they were just starting. After discussing it with my wife, I gave them the nod, and for the next four years, I devoted myself intensively to the development of catalysts that could selectively open the naphthenic ring of decalin. It was great that after about a year, my wife could come visit, and we spent the next three years together in Finland. Only later did I realize how lucky we were that Milan Petrák, Director of the Research Institute of Inorganic Chemistry (VÚANCH) at that time, supported our “Finnish adventure”. About two years after returning from Finland, the next opportunity arose to apply for a project that would modernize VÚANCH’s R&D focus. This is how UniCRE (now ORLEN UniCRE) was born. Collaborating on such a large project, both in the preparation and implementation phases, was a tremendously invaluable learning experience. Thanks to this, we managed to start a new area of research in Litvínov focused on the use of biomass for biofuels and chemicals. A number of interesting projects were connected to this, both academic and commercial, with Česká rafinérská and ORLEN Unipetrol RPA. As it turned out later that the results of the completed projects (where we even managed to publish in abundance), laid an excellent foundation for my subsequent academic career.

How did your long stay in Finland change and/or inspire you?

I think it allowed me to really stand on my own two feet. In addition, my interest in catalysis initiated among other things by Dr. J. Koubek’s lectures, was taken to a new level. I gained both theoretical knowledge and practical experience thanks to the fact that I was surrounded by a whole range of catalysis topics. The approach to scientific work was also inspiring: from the proposal of a hypothesis to the analysis and interpretation of experimental data to the formulation of conclusions. It was also a great experience to work with colleagues from all over the world and to get a glimpse into the life of Finns, which takes place at its own (one could say leisurely) pace, which is often just an appearance. Thanks to the project that I worked on as part of my dissertation, I had the opportunity to work with Neste Oil. This direct experience with a company that has a clear vision that it works towards (with often daring research endeavours), was very stimulating and is something I miss here in my country.

And do you miss Finland?

In a way, yes. But sometimes I wonder if I miss Finland or if I miss the carefree life of a PhD student who has one’s own project to work on fully undisturbed. Anyway, I am always very happy to return to Finland. The last time I was there was two years ago for a conference I had the opportunity to visit Åbo Akademi’s new campus, where they had recently moved, and give a lecture.

You’ve spent more than 15 years in an environment close to applied research, including working at UCT Prague’s Technopark Kralupy. Now you also work at the Department of Sustainable Fuels and Green Chemistry (formerly the Department of Petroleum Technology and Alternative Fuels), and in less than three years, you have managed to become a docent and a professor. What was behind all this?

The key impetus for change was 2015, a year in which I understood that the kind of research that I enjoy belongs more to a university than to a commercial enterprise. After that epiphany, things just fell into place. So, 2016 was less hectic than 2015 because I changed jobs, and this allowed me to focus more on my own research. I was also lucky that the European H2020 Biomates proposal and the Czech Science Foundation proposal that I submitted that year received funding. Thanks to this, by the end of 2017, I had three great PhD students and two very interesting research topics. And then everything took on a life of its own. To return to the aforementioned topic of applied research, my colleagues who do applied research would say that I do basic research, and my colleagues who focus on basic research are convinced that I do applied research. It doesn’t matter to me. In my world, the two types of research must exist together.

What are your plans for future? What would you like to achieve both in your research and with your other professional roles?

I would really like to spend less time with “other professional roles” and have more time for my own research again. In research, I would like to continue what I’m already doing. That way I could complete my metamorphosis into a catalyst. That’s what I really enjoy: setting things in motion and, hopefully, inspiring others.

Updated: 29.4.2024 18:12, Author: Michal Janovský

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