Developing new membranes that work under extreme conditions like high temperature, pressure or acidity. That is what Prof Nieck Benes of the University of Twente is aiming at. But it is teaching that he sees as his true ‘raison d’être’.
In his inaugural address, Nieck Benes mentions Lucretius’ De rerum Natura as a source of inspiration. Already before Common Era, Lucretius writes about atoms, building ‘complex and relatively stable patterns of motion, which at the macroscopic level appear to us as states of rest or relatively gentle motion.’ The movement can only exist if there is empty space, void. It is these voids Benes wants to manipulate, for controlling the movement of atoms and molecules.
His group ‘Films in Fluids’, part of the UT’s MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology, develops ultra-thin layers for that, 100 nanometer thick, for example. They are able to selectively stop molecules of different kinds. Separation by the membrane doesn’t just take place based on size, but also on other molecular properties. Such a film can have a dense structure with several large and empty spaces. In these spaces, molecules of one type fit best. These molecules can jump from one space to another. Size and shape of these ‘voids’ can be manipulated using various building blocks for the layer.
These films are formed at the interface of two liquids, like water and organic matter. The ingredients of both liquids form a stable polymer layer at the interface. Benes’ group works on so-called hybrid layers built of both inorganic and organic building blocks, often for extreme working conditions. Apart from the development of new membranes, the group also studies the way molecules move inside these materials and in what way molecule’s presence influences the properties of the material. For designing new membranes, this fundamental knowledge is very important.
Benes’ ambition is to develop a broad portfolio of building blocks, for new and promising markets. His group is now part of a cluster of research groups on membrane science and technology, with research ranging from nano-characterization of surfaces to process technology and application. UT’s European Membrane Institute is part of this cluster as well, connecting research to the market.
Although research is important for Benes, his personal view is that teaching should be the top priority. As a Professor, you’re a teacher in the first place (the Dutch word for professor, hoogleraar, includes the word leraar, teacher). The university as a whole has a huge responsibility in preparing young people for their future role in society. At the same time, the access to knowledge and content has drastically changed in recent years. The career paths in science tend to follow research. Teaching should be more prominent, according to Benes, in career perspective as well.
Nieck Benes (1971) is Professor of Films in Fluids at the faculty of Science and Technology of the University of Twente. He is also the new Vice Dean of Education at this faculty. Benes finished his PhD with honours in 2000. The title of his inaugural lecture, 2 November 2017, is ‘Content, indeed…’