Working on bio-based chemicals was the thriving force for Luca Ricciardi in his PhD project. He investigated alternative approaches to the synthesis of furfural. ‘This is a promising bio-based chemical,’ Luca states. ‘Apart from its performance as a biofuel, commercially interesting derivates can be produced from it.’
Producible from the sugar xylose, furfural can be at the basis of new production routes, including plastics, fertilizers, diesel and pharmaceuticals. ‘Working on innovative synthesizing routes can make our world less dependent on oil as a starting point for almost everything,’ Luca says.
Microwave-assisted organic synthesis was investigated in the first part of this PhD work. A significant 10-15 mol% selectivity improvement of xylose dehydration, was achieved in a reactive extraction route. The second part, using three-solvent systems, led to promisingly high selectivity results of xylose (>90 mol%). Luca: ‘Conceptual processes and designs are presented that minimize waste and maximize recyclability.’
Luca is happy to see that his work will be continued in a following PhD project. ‘Within the Molecular Nanofabrication (MNF) Group I was a lone wolf from the beginning, starting this new line of research,’ he says.
Luca: ‘In my fundamental approach I kept close contact with industrial practice, focussing on already existing reaction routes and reactants used. This resulted, among other things, in two patents. In the last months of my work, I made my PhD-successor familiar with my approach and findings. He will focus on industrial upscaling. He will continue my work in the Sustainable Process Technology (SPT) group.’
During his PhD Luca says he never came to a closed door when looking for advice, a second opinion or helpful ideas from colleagues within Mesa+.
‘The open approach, I believe, is the right way to go within society nowadays, to go beyond our highly specialistic borders’ he says. ‘For example, I consulted Thomas Brouwer from the SPT group. His thermodynamical knowledge led to much better understanding of a system I was investigating, which eventually resulted in a publication. Points of interdisciplinary contact ignite new sparks.’
Serendipity was present in another finding, in which Luca was looking for a new pathway to make sugars - which are predominately soluble in water - organic soluble.
‘I was pretty sure, from a theoretical point of view, this new path should work. But I couldn’t manage to show it experimentally. When I disappointingly left the sample to stay overnight, it proved to be as I expected. So, sometimes nature needs a little more time. This result was also patented at last.’
In his future career, Luca likes to perform research in a more application oriented context.
‘I am not fully sure where to go yet,’ he says. ‘I value an entrepreneurial environment, preferably in a small SME context or at a start-up. Also I would like to continue working in an international team and contacts. Also the teaching part, supervising master and bachelor students, I liked very much. I think it is important to transfer scientific knowledge to various groups, both youth and society.’