José Ramón Leiza, director of the Institute for Polymer Materials POLYMAT, shows in this interview the evolution of the center he runs in the development of cutting edge research on polymers and explains the position of the basque research in this field in the international scene.
The Polymat Institute has recently transformed itself into one of the BERCs (Basic Excellence Research Centres) dependent on the Basque Government’s Department of Education. Why the change and what will it contribute to Polymat’s research work.
I apologize for correcting you but it isn’t entirely right that the institute has become a BERC. In reality the previous director of the university institute POLYMAT (Prof. José María Asua) has been the driving force behind the new BERC in Macromolecular Design and Engineering, completing the activities in the field of polymers which we have been conducting for over a decade at the POLYMAT institute. Both centres will be called POLYMAT to the outside world even though the activities and management are different. The institute depends exclusively on the UPV/EHU, while the BERC is a foundation in which the UPV/EHU is also on the board with the Basque Government.
In the Basque Country there are various research centres and some departments in the technology centres focusing on the study of polymers. What is Polymat’s specific contribution?
The research at the POLYMAT institute focuses on the fundamental studies of relevant problems and aspects for the industry. In fact, POLYMAT arose as a need to respond to the industrial demands of Basque companies in the polymer field which, because of the breakup of groups dedicated to polymers at the Faculty of Chemical Sciences of San Sebastián, was not being answered. The POLYMAT institute researches the different routes to synthesise new and innovative polymers, the engineering of the polymerisation reaction, the rheology, the superficial properties, the processing of polymers and their possible applications. In the last few years, in these fields I mentioned, research has been conducted on hybrid polymers and nanocomponents made up by conventional polymers and inorganic materials like clay, carbon nanotubes, graphene, metallic oxides, etc., polymer biosensors and membranes, polymers with barrier properties and hydrogels with controlled release applications for medications, to mention a few examples....
We can say that POLYMAT conducts multidisciplinary research in the field of polymers; we contact experts who study aspects related to chemistry, physical chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering and material engineering. This multidisciplinary nature is probably what makes us different from other centres and departments which are most likely limited to one of the fields I mentioned.
What collaboration exists with other nanoBasque agents to maximize the research potential of the Basque Country in the area of materials?
We have collaborated and participated in projects with different Basque scientific-technological agents in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology for some time now. To give you an example, in the Basque Government’s ETORTEK project we participated in the Nanoiker11 project which Nanogune leads in two sub-projects: in one we collaborate with the CSIC/UPV/EHU Mixed Centre and in the other with Nanogune, IK4 and Tecnalia. In addition, we always have specific collaborations in independent research projects where we try to search for expertise in fields where Nanobasque agents contribute knowledge or techniques which we do not have.
What is the Basque country’s position on the international panorama of polymer research?
There are leading groups in the field of polymers at an international level of some of the areas of polymers. An example can be the Polymerisation in Disperse Phase group at POLYMAT which is led by Prof. M. Asua.
Nevertheless, the world of polymers is very broad and is being spread to new applications which society demands, for example, in fields such as energy, medicine and transportation to mention the most important. Polymers will play, or should I say are playing, a very important role and therefore it is strategic to generate knowledge in these areas and to transfer knowledge to the creation of companies or new market sectors in existing companies. From BERC POLYMAT’s point of view I believe that it will play an important role given that its research is directed at covering those lines and will compliment the research we conduct at the institute and other groups which are working and researching the science of polymers in the Basque Country. The objective is for the POLYMAT mixture to be a centre of reference in research and development of polymers in the 21st century, but in my opinion there is a very long road to travel.
How is it possible to achieve that the scientific accomplishments of research centres have a practical application which can have a viable business application? Can you give us an example?
There isn’t a magical formula to ensure that advances or discoveries in research can find a practical application, but in my experience it is much easier when work is done in collaboration with those who have the need to develop or resolve a problem. What I mean is that the transfer of knowledge to the manufacturing fabric is much easier if the industry is involved in the research, and that is not the general rule here, although it is changing. To give a more specific example, in my group we are working on a European project to develop transparent coatings for wood which incorporates cerium oxide nanoparticles (the idea is to paint the wood less frequently, to do this, the UV radiation must not penetrate the fibres and damage them; therefore the intent is to increase the durability of wood based materials which is one of the most sustainable materials available). Companies which synthesise cerium oxide nanoparticles participate in the project, companies which now manufacture polymer dispersions without the nanoparticles, technology centres from Sweden, Belgium and England and us have developed a method to incorporate the nanoparticles during the dispersion manufacturing process. The fact that the nanoparticle manufacturing and dispersion manufacturing companies participate in the project has made us patent the process since the possibility of exploiting applications for wood and even other fields where blocking radiation is very important is being studied.
The Polymat researcher, David Mecerreyes, recently received recognition by the European Research Council (ERC), providing him with 1.5 million Euros. What does this important economic aid imply for Polymat?
It is a luxury to have researchers of David’s calibre. Of course it gives the institute and the UPV/EHU international prestige. On the other hand, for POLYMAT it means being able to continue working until now and, of course, being able to attract young researchers in lines of research which David is establishing at POLYMAT which is what has given recognition to the ERC. In summary, it is an injection to continue working and doing things well.