Emiel Hensen does not want to dwell on the extensive reorganization his predecessor Jaap Schouten had to carry out at the faculty about seven years ago. He prefers to talk about the here and now and the future. At the time, firm decisions had to be made: groups that were highly valued for their research were shut down, jobs disappeared, and the faculty chose two focus areas that were better attuned to the Physics and Chemistry Sector Plan.
Seven years later Hensen says this period is a thing of the past, and the scientists who were affected by the reorganization have found employment elsewhere. “But the faculty faced serious financial difficulties at the time and tough decisions couldn’t be avoided.” Michiel Timmer, Deputy Managing Director at Financial and Economic Affairs, adds that Chemical Engineering, with its labs and research facilities, is a costly affair. Timmer: “When cuts are made in the first flow of funding, our faculty is the first to notice.” The board is pleased with the new funding model at TU/e, known as SAM 2.0, which strengthens the faculty’s position in the field of research.
It is not just the board that rates the faculty’s education highly, so does the outside world. The bachelor’s and the master’s programs receive high scores at assessments, as well as in the Elsevier Best Study Guide and the Dutch Higher Education Guide. Recently, the Masters guide designated the master of Chemical Engineering as the best in the Netherlands. The faculty has also been assessed by the international organization IchemE for years. A small plaque located at the entrance of Helix proves that this assessment turned out favorable as well. “International companies such as Shell and Dow expect us to welcome such agencies,” Hensen says.
The faculty wants to keep up with the latest developments. “Digitalization is rapidly becoming a hot topic in chemistry,” says Hensen. “This is important to the industry now that chemical processes are carried out on a smaller scale more frequently, which results in an enormous amount of data that needs to be processed. Because small-scale production also means less wastage and lower energy consumption.
In in the future, it will also be important to control processes that take place in factories when the necessary energy supply isn’t continuous, because it comes from renewable sources such as sun and wind. To a large extent, the national sector plans focus on that as well. That is why we intend to make this a research topic at our faculty, and why it will become a focal point in our education as well. That is one of this faculty’s strengths: the strong link between research and education. We want our chemical engineers to have a clear vision about sustainability and the energy transition when they leave our faculty.”
What has fundamentally changed since first-year student Hensen sat in the classroom here back in 1989? “At that time, the primary focus was still on chemical technology. Because of the regional outlook and limited attention to publication it felt like a university of applied sciences. That has radically changed. Today we are a unique faculty where chemical technology and chemistry converge, with strong groups in the field of chemical process technology, catalysis, supramolecular chemistry and polymers. We are a front runner in this field, not just in the Netherlands, but internationally as well.” Laurent Nelissen, managing director of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, adds that the scientific staff is also very successful in terms of earning power, i.e. raising financial means. “We recently calculated that individual staff members raise an average of 600,000 euros in funding each year.”
Hensen points out that the faculty has become more international over the past few years. Thirty five percent of students who enrolled this year are internationals. The average number of first-years students is 120, twice as much as in the past. According to Hensen, that “healthy” number can be easily managed without fixed quota. “The teacher-student ratio lies between1 to 15 and 1 to 16.” An ideal ratio, slightly better even than the university-wide ratio the Executive Board strives for.
Hensen: “We manage to attract ambitious students both at home and abroad based on matching procedures. Dropout rates for first-year bachelor’s students have dropped from forty to twenty percent. Some 22 nationalities are present in Helix at the moment. We also keep a close eye on how Dutch students feel about the international classroom and English-taught classes. The students find it an enriching experience and our study association Japie plays an important role by organizing several activities. The business industry also wants these internationals, both graduates and PhD graduates, to stay and work in the region, and we’ve noticed that an increasing number chooses to do so.”
On average, it takes students 27 months to complete their master’s program at the faculty of Chemical Engineering, something Hensen is proud of. “That means that the statutory duration of 24 months is only slightly exceeded. I think that we score very well in efficiency.”
Nelissen would like to draw attention to the special Encouragement grants, the so-callesd STimuleringsbeurs, his faculty makes available to talented newcomers. For the sixth year now, these special grants, worth 2,000 euros, are awarded to a maximum of 25 first-year students who stood out during high school for their extracurricular science activities, social activities, and the originality of their research project. Nelissen: “These grants are a great success, we finance them with the money that spin-offs pay us for the use of our labs. The students consider it a great honor. Other faculties should consider something similar. I heard that the University of Amsterdam is also about the start such a program.”
Hensen believes that the faculty’s research program is well attuned to the National Research Agenda, as well as to the general issues that draw nationwide attention, such as energy transition, circulair economy and healthcare. The faculty takes part in two out of six CRT’s (cross-disciplinary research themes) at TU/e: Smart Materials & Processes, and Renewable Energy. Nelissen: “Emiel won’t say it out loud, but let me point out that our faculty takes the lead. Up until now, the other four themes haven’t moved beyond good intentions.”
Clearly, the two gravity programs in which Chemical Engineering has been participating for some years now are the icing on the cake. In a joint effort to support the transition to a sustainable energy supply, Hensen’s own Molecular Catalysis group and the Chemical Reactor Engineering and Multi-phase Reactors groups have teamed up with the universities of Twente and Utrecht in the Netherlands Centre for Multiscale Energy Conversion. Full professor Bert Meijer and his colleagues at the Molecular Science & Technology group have been working on the Functional Molecular Systems gravity program with researchers from Groningen and Utrecht since 2012.
When it comes to recruiting new scientific personnel, the board favors a flexible approach. Hensen: “It is difficult to foresee which direction research will take in the coming years, so we need people who are flexible. We also focus our attention and means to search for female talent. Quality is what matters most though; predefined quotas do not work. We have quite a few female scientists at TU/e, and they agree.”
Another widely discussed and strongly opposed issue at the faculty is Plan S, the initiate for open access science publications. The plan was fiercely discussed during a dialogue session with the Executive Board last February. Hensen: “Many people here at Helix feel Plan S would do a lot of harm and strongly oppose it.” According to Nelissen, one of the reasons why the plan is so strongly opposed at the Chemical Engineering faculty is because there are many important paywalled journals in the field of chemistry and physics. “Let’s be honest, the annual 2,5 million euros TU/e spends on this is a very small part of our total budget, and it gives us access to every important source of knowledge.” Hensen: “Those journals are also very important for our researchers who want to make their way in the world of science. You can’t let them publish in Donald Duck magazine.” He expects that the final model will meet with approval from everyone: publishers, subsidizers, and scientific institutions.
But this discussion will not cast a cloud over the faculty’s bright future. Of that, the board is fully convinced.