Francqui Research Professor Chair


Damien Debecker is granted a « Francqui Research Professor » chair


The Board of the Francqui Foundation has decided to grant Prof. Damien Debecker a “Francqui Research Professor” chair. This consists in a 120 000 € funding that gives the laureate the chance to dedicate himself to the research, with a reduced teaching assignment. The chair is granted to professors or young researchers of an exceptionally high level, whose research is part of a current and interesting field of research and whose scientific and international influence contributes to an elevated standing of the Institution. The laureate bears the title of Francqui Research Professor for a duration of three years.

Towards hybrid catalysis

Catalysis is the phenomenon by which a substance (the catalyst) accelerates a chemical reaction, without being consumed in the process. For example, enzymes are Nature’s catalysts; they guide the reactions that occur in living organisms. Biocatalysis can be harnessed to carry out highly selective organic synthesis in relatively mild conditions. In industrial chemistry, heterogeneous catalysts are more ubiquitous; these are solids, usually inorganic and relatively robust, able to work in harsher conditions, recoverable and reusable, and well-suited for operations in continuous flow mode. The “hybrid catalysis” concept is to combine both types of catalysts to take advantages of the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of each partner.

In a recent paper published Chemical Science, the team of Damien Debecker has shown that it was possible to efficiently combine an enzyme and an inorganic microporous catalyst (a zeolite) in a single bi-functional solid. This hybrid material allowed catalyzing a first reaction (via the enzyme) of which the product was used by the zeolite in a second reaction. This concept of hybrid catalysis paves the way to new chemical processes in which multiple reactions are carried out in a cascade mode, with a single multifunctional hybrid catalyst.

The project

The Francqui Research Professor chair will enable the team of Prof. Damien Debecker to explore pristine space in the field of hybrid catalysis. This strategy is facing two main challenges. First, one needs to make the biologic and the inorganic partners compatible, to obtain a bifunctional solid. For example, the enzyme can be grafted at the surface of a heterogeneous catalyst, or trapped in the porosity of a structured heterogeneous catalyst. Here, the group relies on innovative preparation methods, utilizing the principles of sol-gel chemistry, aerosol processes, surface functionalization, etc. Second, one has to find common operational windows (solvent, temperature, pressure, etc.) that allow both partners to work efficiently and simultaneously. Typically, highly active heterogeneous catalysts are targeted because they can work at relatively low temperature, and in parallel, the enzyme has to be stabilized against deactivation.

Understanding the key parameters that dictate the behavior of these hybrid structures is one of the focus of the team. With this fundamental knowledge in hands, the objective is to implement the hybrid catalysis strategy to develop more efficient and greener chemical processes. The group plans to target the upgrading of bio-based molecules, which represents a topical challenge for chemists. By exploiting the proximity between the different catalytic species, one can target a boost in selectivity for cascade reactions. By avoiding intermediate steps of separation and purification, one can aim for intensified processes that consume less energy and engender less waste.

I am very thankful to the Francqui Foundation for the trust they place in me with this chair, and also to UCLouvain for their support. I love teaching at the Faculty of bio-science engineering; I will certainly miss the students during these three years! However, our ongoing research projects are very exciting and I am thrilled to have the chance to dedicate myself to it. The chair will enable us to boost our activity on the topic of hybrid catalysis. I am also enthusiastic to welcome the new talents who are currently joining the team!



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Published on July 29, 2020