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Douwe-Wiebe van der Meer (promotion date: 25 March 2003)

Structure-property relations in isotactic polypropylene


Interview: 25 March 2003


Douwe Wiebe van der Meer

I have been investigating the influence of ir-regularities in the carbon chain of polypropylene on the crystallization, morphology and mechanical properties of the material. Therefore I have been looking at samples with different chain structures and the processes that lead to these structures. The processing of plastics has always been a challange.
In 1985 metallocene, a new type of catalyst, became widely available. With it, the material properties were more controllable.

Could you tell us something about your research?
I have been investigating the influence of ir-regularities in the carbon chain of polypropylene on the crystallization, morphology and mechanical properties of the material. Therefore I have been looking at samples with different chain structures and the processes that lead to these structures. The processing of plastics has always been a challenge. In 1985 metallocene, a new type of catalyst became widely available. With it, the material properties were more controllable. With this catalyst the product range was highly increased and so research into processing of the material was intensified. That is what I have been working on as well. Presently we can describe the process mostly in qualitative terms, instead of using statistics. All these investigations into the structure of the material have made this possible.

Was your project practical or more scientific oriented?
The research has been fundamentally scientific, but industry had great interest, since polypropylene has a lot of important applications. I myself am more a scientist. I like fundamental research a lot. I chose to become a Ph.D. student because I think research institutes linked to universities provide a better environment to do research. There is really very much knowledge available and the infrastructure is very good as well. In the institute you can really participate in research at the forefront.

Why do you like research so much?
Because it leaves you the freedom to think of a question and answer it yourself. Of course I had a project description, but it was rather undefined and left a lot of space for me to outline the route I was going to follow. I am also very content with my supervisor. He did not provide me with the answers beforehand to leave me with the experiment to prove his opinion. No, on the contrary, he let me think of my own strategy.

Did you have to work together with any interesting organizations?
Yes of course, several. For a start, I did a lot of my measurements with an interesting little company that is linked to MESA+. A Philips scientist developed an apparatus and then went private to use it for scientific research. And MESA+ was very happy to have him, that is how he ended up here, with us.
I also worked together with professor Pukánszky of the University of Budapest. He is an expert in measuring mechanical impact properties and knows exactly how to exclude or compensate for test parameters from the experiment. There exist standardized tests for measuring mechanical properties of polymers, but these are far too simple. One of the things we could measure where force-distance curves under impact conditions.

What was the biggest deviation from the expectations you had of your Ph.D.-period before you started?
I would not have thought that politics were that important in science. In collaborations and sharing equipment it is very important to think about other people's opinions as well. And sometimes collaboration simply does not work out. I did not expect that.

What was the nicest thing of your research?
The publication of my first article. At first I was rather uncertain about the quality of it, but in a short time several people contacted me by telephone or e-mail and congratulated me with it. That strengthened me a lot. I did publish some more articles, but the first one was really the nicest.

And what are you going to do after you have been presented?
I want to find a job in the research and development department of a company. I do not really mind what type of company it is, small or large. The most important are the quality and the area of the business. During my Ph.D. I have seen some companies and made some contacts. We will see if that leads to something.
For example, DSM could be an interesting company to work at. Although, a lot of activities were sold, they are still very active in the area I’m interested in. Moreover, the research is considered very important in their business strategy.