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Chemist Marc Koper receives Spinoza Prize for research on electrolysis

Professor Marc Koper researches how you can use electrical energy to make or break chemical bonds. He has just been awarded a Spinoza Prize, the Netherlands’ highest personal science award, for his fundamental research into how this form of electrolysis works.

Congratulations! When did you hear that you were to receive this prestigious prize?

‘I was on holiday in Sicily when I listened to my voicemail, so I politely phoned back, of course. I am absolutely delighted; it is a real recognition of your work. We opened a bottle of prosecco that evening in Palermo to celebrate.’  

Prosecco? After hearing you are going to be awarded a prize of 2.5 million euros?  

Laughing: ‘Well, you just have to tell yourself prosecco is Italian champagne.’

Can you tell us in a nutshell about the research you have received this prize for? 

‘I work in the field of electrochemistry, the area of chemistry that studies the relationship between electricity and chemical reactions. These reactions take place in the battery of your mobile phone, for example, but they have a lot more applications, like storing green energy, for example. At the moment, there’s not a good way of storing surplus energy from wind and solar farms, so that energy is lost. But, what if we use this surplus electricity on a large scale to split water into hydrogen and oxygen? We can then use the hydrogen as fuel for cars or for all kinds of applications in the chemical industry, for example in the production of synthetic fertilisers. That would be a win-win situation because at the moment it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce hydrogen. I study precisely how this process of electrolysis works, and how it can be made better, more efficient and more stable.’

If we look ten or twenty years ahead, how will your specialist field have changed the world? 

‘The only way we can make our world more sustainable is by switching to green energy. That means not only that we have to use green energy for our cars and household appliances but also numerous other chemical processes that at the moment are totally dependent on fossil fuels. In other words: we have to find a way of producing the building blocks of the chemical industry using electricity. And if we can also capture harmful substances such as CO₂, split them and reuse them in useful polymers, we’ll come closer and closer to a waste-free cyclic system. Not only that, I’m convinced that this has to go hand in hand with a stricter policy on environmentally friendly practices. You sometimes hear that sustainable technology isn’t profitable, but the real truth is that practices that pollute are just too cheap.’  

The applications are infinite, that’s clear. But imagine that the societal impact was limited; would you still be working at this microscopic level?

‘Absolutely! As a scientist, I’m not that interested in the applications. I came into this field not because I want to improve the world, but because I want to understand at atomic level what happens when you transmit electricity through a chemical fluid. My field is a fantastic combination of physics and chemistry, and there are a lot of open challenges and gaps in our knowledge. That makes it very exciting. But it’s a real bonus to also be dealing with questions from society, in my case mainly from the chemical industry. It puts your own research in a broader context, which is something I know my PhD candidates and postdocs appreciate. And it makes sure that there is a continuous flow of research.’ 

Who is Marc Koper?

Marc Koper (1967) is Professor of Catalysis and Surface Chemistry at the Leiden Institute of Chemistry (LIC). He studied Chemistry at Utrecht University, where he also conducted his PhD research. From 1995 he worked at the University of Ulm (Germany) and at the Eindhoven University of Technology. He has been a professor in Leiden since 2005. In his career, Koper has written several leading publications and won awards. The year 2021 has been a high point in his career with an ERC Advanced Grant and the Spinoza Prize, together worth five million euros in research funding. 

The Spinoza Prize is the Netherlands’ most prestigious personal scientific award. But am I right in thinking that a lot of other people are also involved in your research? 

‘Definitely! Without the talented people in my research group I wouldn’t get far. I also get a lot of support from my institute and the rest of the University, both financial and moral. Leiden University is a great place because you are given the freedom to carry out your research. That’s part of our motto (Bastion of Freedom, Ed.), and you also see that in the students. When I worked at the Eindhoven University of Technology, it was sometimes difficult to get students interested in my research because it doesn’t always have an immediate application. In Leiden students want to know all about the fundamental aspect too.’  

Right now, your work is very well-funded because earlier this year you also received a European research grant of 2.5 million euros. What will you use the Spinoza Prize for?

‘That’s something I need to think about. You have complete freedom in how you use the Spinoza Prize, and that opens a lot of doors. I want to use it for a project for which it would otherwise be difficult to get funding, something outside my own comfort zone. I don’t know yet exactly what that will be, but in any event it will be at the interface between organic chemistry and electrochemistry. And I’ll probably also take on a talented PhD candidate or postdoc, on their chosen topic, because that’s often the best way to generate exciting research ideas.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Images: NWO – Studio Oostrum

About the Spinoza Prize

The Spinoza Prize is awarded every year to a maximum of four scientists who are recognised internationally as being at the absolute top of their scientific field. Each winner receives 2.5 million euros to use for new research of their own choosing. Together with the Stevin Prize, it is the largest personal science prize in the Netherlands. You can find all the Leiden winners of the Spinoza and Stevin Prizes here.

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