Published 2019-01-10

This post is also available in Swedish

Cleaner air from smart chemistry

Mistra TerraClean is developing smart materials — both at molecular level and by embedding smart sensors in materials. The goal is smart polymers that can purify air and water more efficiently.

‘Polymers and molecules are wonderful,’ says Ulrica Edlund, Professor of Polymer Technology at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Mistra TerraClean’s Programme Director.

 

More explicitly, she describes chemistry as the basis that enables us to understand how the world is made — an understanding she wants to use to construct new smart materials.

 

Now she has the chance to do precisely that. The Mistra TerraClean programme, which has just completed its first year, aims to use renewable raw materials to create materials with smartness built into their molecular structure. The next stage will involve smart sensors being embedded, and eventually more efficient filters and membranes will follow.

‘Ever since I finished my civil engineering degree in 1995, I’ve been building and changing molecules. What drives me is the desire to learn more.’

After graduation, things happened fast. First Edlund gained her doctorate, focusing on biomedical polymers and specialising in controlled drug release. Next came postdoctoral studies in the US. She then returned to KTH Royal Institute of Technology, where she became Professor of Polymer Technology in 2016.

‘When I went to the US, I wanted to learn more about organic chemistry, especially how to build advanced molecular structures that can do new things. But to grasp what processes are required, we also need to understand how our polymers are going to interact with their environment.’

In practice, it can be a matter of extracting molecules that nature itself has created, using them as raw material, and then constructing materials that are smart.

‘In individual cases, it’s about understanding what we’re after. If we’re going to make biobased plastics, we must think both about how to get the right properties and about how they can compete with today’s fossil-based plastics.’

The first challenge — to produce bioplastics with the right properties — is difficult. Doing this at a low cost is more difficult.

‘People have been developing traditional plastics for a long time, which means they have superb properties but are cheap. That’s why we need to be both grounded in reality and focused on the market. The hope is that the research will have an impact that enables us to push costs down.’

This is where Mistra TerraClean comes in.

‘In 2016, Mistra came up with a call for proposals on smart materials, and I saw it as an opportunity to do something significant, especially so as to realise our ambitions to create materials that are sustainable, smart and competitive ­— and, what’s more, good for people and the environment.’

The first step was to gather a core group comprising people from projects Edlund was then involved in. The second step was to define the goals: clean air and pure water.

‘They’re absolutely essential for human well-being. Although we’re lucky in Sweden, there are a range of challenges. One of them is the fact that to maintain our competitiveness, we must improve.’

After a period of hard work, Edlund and her companions had both built a consortium and formulated an application they firmly believed in.

‘We were totally convinced that we’d captured key issues and formed a team with the right skills. We also had faith in our ability to achieve the goals we’d set. It was an arduous but enjoyable time when we learnt lots from one another.’

Mistra too saw the strength of the proposal and, in 2017, entrusted Edlund and her co-applicants with responsibility for the programme. Over the past year, the various participants have been furthering one another’s professional development and expanding the breadth of their skills. One way to get there was by forming the Mistra TerraClean Academy.

‘One of our challenges is to find common ground. As often happens, different disciplines within the programme have divergent terminology and a variety of special conditions. As a materials developer, I need to understand what it takes to make a smart sensor work — one inserted by someone else.’

I start the next question, about how they have had to collaborate, but before I manage to finish the sentence she dismisses the idea.

‘It’s not a matter of having to do it. We want to! Working together is a joy, and during this time I’ve had many new insights and lightbulb moments. But above all, broad understanding is essential if we’re going to meet complex challenges.’

To further strengthen all the programme members’ sense of community, they make a point of holding meetings both on the premises of businesses facing challenges in air and water purification and at one another’s workplaces.

‘That way, we can understand better what’s needed for the materials and systems we develop to meet every requirement, but also how to give them the design feature of adaptability to changes in conditions where they’re used.’

Edlund’s dream is that, within the next few years, the programme will develop effective solutions in the areas they are currently engaged in and succeed in showing, in a number of demonstration facilities, that these solutions are workable.

‘To get there, we’ll have gone from working on many types of material and processing methods to a few. I hope, too, that we’ll have extended our efforts to new areas. I think we can succeed in that because this is a collection of amazing people who are all working towards the same goal. And that’s regardless of whether they come from universities, research institutes, multinational companies or little business start-ups.’

Facts

Name: Ulrica Edlund

Age: 46

Family: husband and three children

Interests: ‘I love baking, which is also about understanding chemistry and how various molecules react with one another.’

Programme website: https://mistraterraclean.com