Avelino Corma: "It is possible to combine fundamental research and the transfer of knowledge to industrial application"

23 marzo 2017

Avelino Corma is a Professor at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ITQ-CSIC-Universitat Politècnica de València), which he founded, and one of the most highly cited researchers in the world. For over 30 years he has been carrying out research in heterogeneous catalysis both in academia and in collaboration with companies.

Avelino Corma is a Professor at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ITQ-CSIC-Universitat Politècnica de València), which he founded, and one of the most highly cited researchers in the world. For over 30 years he has been carrying out research in heterogeneous catalysis both in academia and in collaboration with companies. With 150 patents and 180 researchers, the ITQ is one of the leading world centres not only in academic terms but also by its capability to transfer basic knowledge to technological applications.

Dr. Corma has received dozens of international awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research in 2014.

How would you describe the situation of the Institute of Chemical Technology right now?


One of the particularities of this institute is that in just a quarter of a century we have grown from a small installation on a parking slot at the Universitat Politècnica de València to being recognised as one of the leading basic research centres in the world. We are nor just leaders in academic publications but also as one of the centres with a higher capability of transferring technologies into industrial applications. This shows that it is possible to combine fundamental research and the transfer of knowledge to industrial application. We need to go beyond the classical ratings of research centres just based on publications and go one step further. If we are able to make good science we have to be able to help the production system too. And this is what we have been doing at the ITQ from the beginning.

Which are the main ITQ research lines at the moment?


A very important part of our research focuses on developing micro- and nano-porous materials that act as molecular sieves, i. e., they are able to separate molecules based on their size and shape. They are used in absorption and separation processes, and also as catalysts, and we get reactions in a very clean way, with a minimum generation of waste.

Which are the applications of this research?


For example, we can separate nitrogen from oxigen, methane from CO2, olefins from paraffins or branched hydrocarbons from linear hydrocarbons. Relating reactivity, and considering that catalysis takes part in approximately 90% of all chemical process. Additionally, we apply our catalysts in fine chemicals, bulk chemistry and petrochemicals and refining.

How many patents do you have so far and what is the industry role in their development?

I estimate that we have about 150 patents so far. Most of them have been developed side by side with the industry, because they are the result of research contracts with some companies. Another important part of our patents, about a third of them, has been directly generated inside the institute, and a high percentage of them has been licensed to companies later on.

Which are your most remarkable patents?


In petrochemistry and refining field, for example, we have developed technology for big processes such as catalytic cracking, alkane isomerisation or removing sulphur from natural gas to obtain hydrogen. In chemistry, propylene ethoxylation, preparation of intermediate products to obtain polymers and obtaining propylene from methanol are important developed processes. In fine chemical field, we have established new preparation routes that have important advantages over other done before which have already been applied in the industry.

How is your relationship with private companies?


In most cases, companies come to see us. Those companies that are investing in cutting-edge research perfectly know who is who and what is everyone doing at a worldwide level, and they contact those research groups that are more interesting for the developments that they pursue. In some other cases, when we discover something that might be interesting for the industry, we contact the companies. We normally contact first those that have already worked with us.

What kind of companies are we talking about?


They are chemical companies, mostly, from fine chemicals, such as perfume manufacturers, to bulk chemistry, with companies that prepare chemical products in tonnes, and petrochemicals and refining. About 30% of these companies are Spanish, and 70% are from other countries.

Which is the recipe for success in this transfer of knowledge between your research centre and the industry?


We normally work with companies that are really interested in developing something new, and they might even have their own research facilities and staff. When they contact us, we work in their projects together with them as a whole team, where all parts contribute. Following this way, the chances of success are higher. It is also important to notice that these companies are aware that research is research, and therefore there is not a guarantee to success. They know that only a small percentage of research projects end up in an industrial application, and they accept that.

How do you foresee your research in the next five or ten years?


We have to address the current paradigms in chemistry. We have to look for renewable raw materials, and get the processes to be as green as possible. So, we have to focus on green chemistry, and we are already doing this. We have also put more efforts in research and development in the renewable energy field. I think those are the areas where we will be working harder in the next few years to develop new technologies.

You have received dozens of awards from all kind of institutions. How does that effect on the institute and your current and future research?


Obviously, I do not work to get awards. Research is something that I feel, that I live. I continuously think about problems and try to find the way to solve them. The most important thing about the awards is knowing that our colleagues recognise that we are doing things pretty well and that we are on the right track. And, of course, it is a recognition of a team work. It is an honour to see that so many institutions from different places are recognising the scientific advances that we do in this little corner on the south of Europe.

How do you invest the money from awards and patents?


By law, researches could keep 40% of the revenues from patents and license. But from the beginning, we at ITQ decided that we would donate this money to the institute. We do the same with the awards. So, we are self-funding part of our research and, as consequence, we can offer more grants and contracts, we can develop our own projects and, therefore, we maintain certain independence.

Credits: Photos by Anna Boluda

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