Marleen Kamperman, professor in polymer chemistry and materials science
Without people, the TopDutch region wouldn’t thrive. Who are our young entrepreneurial and scientific talents? To give you a taste, let us introduce to you: Marleen Kamperman, professor of polymer chemistry and materials science at the University of Groningen.
Have you ever wondered how mussels stay stuck to rocks in a continuously moving, salty, wet environment such as a sea? Or why gravity doesn’t pull a gecko to the floor when it’s hanging upside down on the ceiling of a terrarium? It must be superglue! How does nature produce its sticky materials? Professor Marleen Kamperman, polymer chemist at the University of Groningen (RUG), and her research group search for answers to those questions.
Nature’s superglues are made from polymers. And polymers are just another name for plastics. “But in my case, not the ones we know for day-to-day packaging’’, explains Marleen. “We create materials from polymers, by studying how nature makes those materials. We try to reproduce those from synthetic materials. We are now starting to collaborate with my colleague professor Katja Loos to use building blocks extracted from plant materials instead of petroleum to fabricate the materials.’’
For instance, proteins are polymers. And so are sugars. Nature makes interesting materials, right?
One of those interesting materials which Marleen reproduces at the TopDutch’s Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials is underwater-glue. “Mussels and other animals can secrete glue underwater to attach themselves to rocks. The applications of materials that copy this performance are very interesting. For example, it can be used for growing seaweed. We can cultivate seaweed between wind turbines at sea, but we need glue that adheres well in order for the seaweed to stay in place and grow.’’
So why nature as a source of inspiration? “In nature, materials have been developed continuously over a long period of time. That makes them very intelligent materials’’, says Marleen. “There’s no use of solvents that are toxic.’’ Besides, the natural materials are developed at room temperature, under normal air pressure, in very benign circumstances.
And that’s the direction ‘we’ need to head in, claims Marleen. “We should create optimal conditions for production, like nature did. Without the use of too much energy.’’ We can learn from nature. “If you limit yourself to these circumstances, you can greenify processes to a great extent’’, in her opinion.
The re-creation of natural materials with synthetic polymers happens in the lab. But without the animals that produce it, emphasizes Marleen. “We work together with biologists, who teach us how to think about the most important characteristics.’’ Nature is too complex to recreate exactly. “What’s important for us, is to extract the essence of why a material is working. That’s what we reproduce.’’
The round-trip to the TopDutch region
It’s not been too long since Marleen started as a professor at the University of Groningen: She was appointed in September 2018. After traveling around the world to do research, she came back to the region where she started her scientific career: the TopDutch region.
She started in Groningen. Studied chemistry. After that, she moved to the United States. She graduated from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, where she learned about making polymers. After finishing her PhD, Marleen moved to Germany for a postdoc in bio-adhesion. “To give you an example of what that means: I researched why a gecko can stick to a ceiling, but can walk away too. How it can turn its attachment system on and off, without losing its strength.’’
From Germany, her journey continued. Wageningen University in the Netherlands became her home base, where she spent her time developing systems inspired by nature. “Because all of the above made it possible for me to combine nature and polymers.’’ And now, the circle is complete. Marleen became a professor at the University of Groningen. “Even the building is the same.’’
So why did she come back to the TopDutch region? “I knew the people working here. The University gave me a chance to build my own research group. Besides, there are many more materials scientists here, researchers that create new materials. And I like to work together with biologists, whom the RUG also houses.’’ All in all, an ideal situation for research like Marleen’s.
Finding a market
But apart from having the ideal circumstances to recreate natural glues, the TopDutch region also provides Marleen with possible (end) users of her developed materials. The region is home to organizations and companies that would like to make products from those materials, or are interested in those products. Besides being near the North and Wadden Sea, the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials is also close to the University Medical Center in the TopDutch region.
Most of the materials Marleen develops may be applied in biomedical products. “Hence, it’s really convenient to be close to a hospital. As well, the region is home to startups and small companies that work with or create biomedical materials.’’ Although, interest in her super glues is coming from around the world. Besides hers, there’s no other research group in the world that produces the materials she does.
Back to its potential: Biomedical glues can be used to replace stitches and sutures. They are easier to use, faster to apply and leave fewer scars behind. “But to create a bioinspired glue that is strong enough, isn’t easy’’, says Marleen. “The human body is wet and dynamic. The kind of glue we create makes it easier to inject the glue in such a wet and dynamic environment.’’
Developing surgical adhesives has a lot of international potential, says Marleen. “A lot of surgeons are interested, because there a no good alternatives.’’ Instant glue, for example, is toxic. “That’s why we need green alternatives, inspired by nature.’’
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