Stories#009 Albert's booming nanotechnology

#009 Albert's booming nanotechnology

The story of Brechje's fertile soil is a story of Albert's booming nanotechnology

Brechje Maréchal likes to keep both feet on the ground. With that practical, down-to-earth attitude, the policy worker creates the fertile ground in the UT to improve the university's sustainability. Albert van den Berg is also a regular visitor to the countryside. He worries about the melting snow in his beloved Alps. But how does he translate that personal concern to his work as a professor? ‘As a university, we must lead the field.’

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Tuesday 5 January 2021

Albert van den Berg and Brechje Maréchal are in total agreement about one thing: our green future starts today. In 2030, the University of Twente wants to be a sustainable organisation. However, Brechje wonders how Albert sees that? Should we all stop flying, or can we count on scientific progress to resolve the climate problem? The policy worker talks to the green-minded professor about his ideas.

Brechje: 'So, what's that photo collage above your desk? I recognise those mountains... that's the Val d’Anniviers, isn't it?'

Albert: 'Yes, in the Pennine Alps! Funny that you mention that, because that was where I first truly realised what climate change means. A few years ago, I was walking with my daughter on the Aletsch Glacier. The mountain cabin we were sleeping in had been built on its edge. But now we had to climb 150 metres to reach it. All the ice has melted. That's when it hit me. Wow, I thought, if we go on like this, there will be no habitable planet left for the next generation. I am not the ultimate sustainability person – my research is about medical chips, which is quite different. But I've become super motivated. CO2 is the culprit. Emissions must stop.’

Not a business case

Brechje: 'How do you see your role at the UT in the sustainable movement up to 2030?'

Albert: 'I want to motivate people and move them in the right direction. In Twente, our attitude tends to be: we are doing great things, but no one knows about them. Which gets us nowhere. I feel that we should do more things that generate publicity for us. Pack the roof with solar panels, or something. You then get told that this is not a business case. What do you mean? It's PR! That has value: we get students involved, we raise our visibility nationwide. I recently heard that UT is the most energy-efficient technological university in the Netherlands. If so, show it! Very few people know that the pond near the Horst is a cooling system. Or that we store more than a thousand cubic metres of rainwater under the campus. Put up signs, I say. Make it visible and tangible.'

Brechje: 'We obviously do a lot already, but you're right. We could be more visible. When it comes to green choices, do you support big changes or small daily changes?'

Albert: 'To be honest, I'm not someone who always turns off the tap when brushing my teeth. I admit I could do better. However, I am building a sustainable house with a rainwater harvesting plant. In that sense, I choose steps which have a great impact on my life.'

Fifty-six solar panels

Brechje: 'To implement big changes in organisations, you need support. You won't achieve change with technical solutions alone. Involvement and collaboration are equally important. Or do you see it differently?'

Albert: 'No, I agree with you. You need to make the subject sexy. Then you'll get people on board. Take Tesla. It's a lovely car and people want to have one. What's more, it's sustainable. A green home doesn't need to be boring. My new house has a moss roof, heat pump, water capture system and fifty-six solar panels. But above all, it's a house I want to live in.'

Brechje: ‘Fifty-six solar panels, lol! Do you need that many?'

Albert: 'Yes, I have an electric car, which takes quite a lot of energy... Incidentally, talking about small steps: last year, we had a car park scattered with greenSand, a mineral that absorbs CO2. I talked about that in my department. A colleague then suggested replacing the water cooler in the kitchen by an installation that uses tap water. All that transport of water bottles was totally unrealistic... In that way, you inspire each other to come up with ideas.'

Magical intervention

Brechje: 'Something like greenSand almost sounds like a magical intervention: scatter sand and solve the climate problem. Do you think that's the direction we need to go? Or do we need to change our behaviour too?'

Albert: 'Yes, we certainly need to consume less. Although I'm also a gadget man...'

 Brechje: 'And I think that we can save a lot on mobility too. Do we really need to travel? For research, international meetings are really useful, so you shouldn't ban them. However, it is useful to ask the question: is this journey necessary?'

Albert: 'Exactly, I won't fly to Turkey for a meeting with fifty people anymore. On the other hand: It's easy for me to talk. Young scientists still need to build their international networks. So, I find it hard to say: you can't fly any longer. But if you are travelling less than 800 kilometres, take the train.'

Ambitious plans

Brechje: 'What sustainable opportunities do you see for education? Students tell me that there is not enough focus on sustainability in the subjects they study.'

Albert: 'Isn't there a sustainability master, though?'

Brechje: 'Yes, but I mean that sustainability is addressed in each subject. Do you see it as your role to promote that?'

Albert: 'I do feel that a sustainability elective should be included in every bachelor and master cycle. But you won't come across sustainability so much if you study theoretical subject. On the other hand: you can always stimulate sustainable applications. Incidentally, our research plays a big role in that. At the MESA+ Institute, we have the BRAINS initiative, and we look, for example, at sustainable materials for batteries and Negative Emission Technologies (NET). At the Centre for Energy Innovation, they also have ambitious plans. And what about sustainable health and food technology. There must also be lots of things happening on campus that I don't yet know about...'

Brechje: ‘In conclusion: what role do you feel that we at UT play in the transition to a sustainable society? Should we take the lead in that?'

Albert: 'Yes, as a university, we need to lead the way. And that's expected of us. In the region and in the country, they watch us: what are we doing? Remembering that glacier: we have no time to lose!'


is the UT’s Environment & Sustainability policy officer. After working in Italy, the Philippines and at Twente Milieu in Enschede, she came to the UT in 2018. She works on sustainability in operational management, where she puts all her experience into practice. From her background in environmental science to her work in community development and from her teaching experience to her research in sustainable agriculture and soil conservation.

Professor Albert van den Berg (1957)

is professor of sensor systems for biomedical and environmental applications and scientific director of MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology. He also does research into the manipulation and movement of fluids at micro and macro level. Based on those studies, he develops chips which can be used in the medical world. In 2009, he received the Spinoza premium for his work.