10 European Labs Involved in Cutting-Edge Polyolefins Research

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Polyethylene (PE) and Polypropylene (PP) are two major polymers of the polyolefins (PO) group. Several variations of these two polymers are included in PO group. When we look at the structure of PE, PP and their different grades, carbon and hydrogen atoms are mostly found but at precisely controlled positions. This nearly perfect placement of these two simple (carbon and hydrogen) atoms make PE and PP extremely important polymers. To know their importance, just pick anything lying around you made of plastics and most probably you will see an abbreviation on it from these ones PE, PE-LD, PE-HD, PP.

Research conducted at the European laboratories has played a major role in the development of modern commercial PO production technologies. Ziegler-Natta (ZN) catalyst is the work horse of PO production processes, globally. The name of this catalyst has its roots in the exemplary contributions of Karl Ziegler (a German Chemist) and Giulio Natta (an Italian Chemical Engineer). In 1963, Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing Ziegler-Natta catalyst.

Based upon the traditions set by Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta, different laboratories in Europe are involved in research related to PO catalysts, PO production processes and PO processing and applications. In this post, our aim is to provide an overview of some of the leading labs involved in the research areas of PO catalysts and PO production processes. This post is intended to help:

    • Students/young researchers interested in PO catalysts and process related research in Europe to locate these labs and get in contact with the lab responsible for Master’s thesis/PhD/Post-Doctoral research possibilities.
    • Companies looking for European research partners in the field of PO catalyst and process development.

No ranking of these labs is intended in this post as all of them are experts in their respective research areas.

But before discussing the labs, it is important to briefly discuss about The Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI). Simply put, it is a platform for the polymer industry and research laboratories (mainly part of the public universities) to get in touch with each other and solve industrially relevant problems in a cost-effective way. Companies which are members of the DPI benefit from low cost research facilities available in the member research labs (i.e., the knowledge institute). The knowledge institute get to know the industrial problems and receive funding from the member companies to solve such problems. This way academia and the polymer industry are linked together and remain up-to-date with each others problems. Big names among industrial partners of DPI include Aramco, Dow Benelux, Exxon Mobil, SABIC etc. Research at DPI is divided into three following clusters:

  1. Polyolefins
  2. Performance Polymers
  3. Polymers for Oil & Gas

DPI is probably a unique platform of its kind within Europe (and perhaps in the world also). This is because the PhD and Post-Doctoral students/researchers get an exceptional opportunity at DPI to work directly with industrial experts of the field and to learn what are industrially important issues and how to solve them in an industrially attractive way. Vacant research positions at DPI are posted on its website and interested students/researchers should keep on checking DPI’s website. Overall, DPI is doing a great job both for the academia and polymer industry.  Most of the research labs discussed below are members of DPI. 

Laboratory of Chemistry, Catalysis, Polymers and Process (C2P2), Lyon, France

This laboratory has a long history in PO catalysts and process research. Prominent researchers from this lab in the field of PO catalyst and process research include Prof. Timothy McKenna, Prof. Christophe Boisson, Dr. Vincent Monteil, Dr. Mostafa Taoufik. The research conducted at this laboratory is a unique combination of PO catalysis and polyolefins reaction engineering. Besides PO, the lab is also active in other research areas related to polymer chemistry and science.

The lab is equipped with PO catalyst synthesis apparatus where most of the supported PO catalysts can be produced under controlled conditions. For evaluating the PO catalysts, reactors of different volumes are installed in the lab. Reactor volumes vary and they can be operated in both slurry and gas phases. The smallest one is a stop flow reactor where gas phase polymerization time can be as low as few seconds. Such reactors provide the lab a capability to study different stages of olefin polymerization. For the analysis of POs, the lab is equipped with different characterization equipment. 

A complete overview of the lab and its research activities is available here.         

Laboratory of Stereoselective Polymerizations (LSP), Naples, Italy

This lab is a part of the Department of Chemical SciencesFederico II University of Naples,Italy. The Federico II University of Naples is the world’s oldest public university and third largest university in Italy. Paolo Corradini, a famous chemist who confirmed the crystalline structure of Giulio Natta’s PP, has laid the foundations of The Department of Chemical Sciences of University of Naples, Italy (since the present Department of Chemical Sciences is a product of 2012’s merger between the ‘Paolo Corradini’ Department of Chemistry and the Department of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry).

Prominent present time researchers in the field of PO from this lab include Prof. Dr. Vincenzo Busico and Prof. Dr. Roberta Cipullo.  

The lab is equipped for the synthesis of different PO catalyst under conditions of industrial relevance. In addition to traditional catalyst synthesis equipment, availability of High Throughput Experimentation (HTE) setup in this lab for quick catalyst screening provides an edge to this lab. Quenched flow and bench polymerization reactors are also available for olefin polymerizations under different conditions. For the characterization of catalysts and polymers, the lab has analytical instruments like High-Temperature Gel Permeation Chromatography (GPC), polymer Crystallization Elution Fractionation (CEF), Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) Spectroscopy, different Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy along with other advanced tools.

A complete overview of the lab and its research activities can be found here

University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, Czech Republic

In PO research community, the research group of Prof. Juraj Kosek (from the University of Chemistry and Technology Prague, Czech Republic) is also well-known. With focus on polyolefins morphology and thermodynamics, this research group was established in 2000. Now the group has extended its research activities in the areas of computational science, energy storage, electrostatics and polymeric foams.

In general, this group is more active in the research related to PO thermodynamics which is an important area for olefin polymerization reactors and separation units.

A full overview of the research group, its activities, the available equipment and software can be found here.

Martin-Luther University, Halle, Germany

At Martin-Luther University, the polymerization reaction engineering group was created by Prof. Michael Bartke in 2006. Since then the group has contributed significantly to reaction engineering aspects of PO processes. 

The research group has a special focus on olefin polymerization reaction kinetics, mass and heat transfer, PO process development and scale up. Different commercial simulation software (like Aspen Plus, gPROMS and Predici) are also used by the group in PO related research.

Installed laboratory equipment includes polymerization reactors of different types and sizes which enables the lab to study olefin polymerization under conditions of industrial importance.

For a complete overview of the group and its research activities click here.

Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands

At Eindhoven University of Technology (TUe), The Netherlands, the research group of multi-scale modelling of multi-phase flows (in the department of chemical engineering and chemistry) is active in the research related to PO processes. Olefin polymerization reactors involve multi-scale and multi-phase processes going on simultaneously. For understanding the interplay between these complex coupled processes and designing large scale industrial reactors, advanced models are necessary. Under the supervision of Prof. Hans Kuipers the group is involved in the research which uses different types of in-house-built Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) models to study the hydrodynamics involved in PO reactors. Other relevant phenomena at different length and time scales are also investigated. The results generated in such studies are of relevance for reactor scale-up.

Another research area of this group is non-invasive monitoring of multi-phase flows. Here the aim is to develop advanced non-invasive experimental techniques for the measurement of key quantities. For example, techniques to measure the local volume fractions and velocities of the dispersed and continuous phases inside a (e.g., fluidized bed reactor (FBR)) reactor. FBRs are  among the major reactors used by various commercial PO production processes.

For complete overview of the current research and contact address of the research group, click here.

TUe has an updated and interactive website which provides information about different research laboratories and equipment available. Click here to go to that page.

Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

The Weckhuysen group at Utrecht University, Utrech, The Netherlands is active in PO catalysts characterization and their understanding at a molecular level. PO catalysts researched by this group include heterogeneous/supported ZN and metallocene catalysts. One of the major contributions of this group to the heterogeneous catalyst characterization includes the development of ‘Operando spectroscopy’ under the supervision of Prof. Bert Weckhuysen. This special spectroscopy technique allows in-situ measurements under realistic catalytic conditions. Realistic conditions can be high temperatures and pressures. Just like other in-situ techniques, this one also provide real time data about the catalyst behavior under conditions of industrial relevance allowing better understanding of commercial processes at a micro-scale. Such characterization tools also help in improved catalyst design.

This research groups is equipped with a variety of catalyst characterization instruments. For a complete overview of the research group and equipment, click here.

University of Turin, Torino, Italy

The research group of Prof. Elena Groppo (Department of Chemistry, University of Turin, Italy) is involved in research related to spectroscopic characterization of heterogeneous PO catalysts e.g., ZN, supported metallocenes and chromium catalysts. The research conducted in this group further improves the understanding of active polymerization species present on different heterogeneous PO catalysts. 

More information about the activities of this research group can be found here.

University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany

PO catalysts and olefin polymerization is also investigated by the research group of Prof. Gerrit A. Luinstra. Research activities  focus on catalyst design, catalytic polymerization reactions, scale-up to the kilogram scale and material processing and testing. 

University of Hamburg is the place where Prof. Walter Kaminsky discovered the methylaluminoxane (MAO) in mid-1970s.

The lab has polymerization reactors which are partially automated with reactor volumes ranging from 100 mL to 10 L. In addition to catalyst synthesis and polymerization reactors, the lab is equipped with characterization equipment like chromatography (GC/MS and SEC), spectroscopy and thermal analysis.

For more details about the research activities, publications and installed equipment in this lab, click here.

Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria

In Austria, The Institute of Chemical Technology of Organic Substances (Johannes Kepler University, Linz) is active in research related to PO reaction engineering. Under the supervision of Prof. Christian Paulik (a prominent personality in PO research community), the institute is at the forefront of PO and PO additives related research. 

The PO reaction engineering lab is equipped with several reactors of different volumes which can be operated under variety of conditions of industrial relevance. A specially designed micro reactor allows the follow-up of the olefin polymerization on heterogeneous catalysts under light / IR microscope. This enables the lab to study single-polymerizing particles. Such studies provide an improved understanding of kinetic behavior of single particles which helps chemists and chemical engineers to develop better catalysts and processes. 

A complete overview of the lab personnel, equipment and research activities is provided here.    

Darmstadt University of Technology, Darmstadt, Germany

The research group of Prof. Markus Busch is active in high-pressure polymer reaction engineering. The main research areas are safety-related investigations of reaction mixtures, testing of new reagents and process variants on mini-plant scale at up to 3000 bar and the simulation of processes up to commercial scale.

This research group has a continuous high-pressure polymerization reactor which can be operated at pressures up to 3000 bar. Homopolymers of ethylene, co-and ter-polymers of ethylene with other monomers can be produced in this reactor.

A solution polymerization mini-plant for the production of high density polyethylene (HDPE) and linear low density polyethylene (LLDPE) is also available in this lab. Solution process is catalytic using soluble PO catalysts.

Peroxide initiators are used in high pressure LDPE production process. This research group has the capability to study kinetics of such initiators thanks to the transitiometer (which is a special kind of differential scanning calorimetry (DSC)). This transitiometer allows measurements up to 300°C and 4000 bar pressure. Transitiometer allows the ‘simultaneous’ measurement of pressure, volume, temperature and the calorimetric signal. In a typical measurement, one physical property is kept constant, the second one is selectively changed to measure its effect on the third one. This allows measurement of various physical properties like density, expansion coefficient, compression modulus or heat capacity of liquids, polymers and gases. For liquids and polymers,  Standard Unit transitiometer is used. For gases, the Advanced Unit transitiometer is utilized. 

This research group is also active in kinetic and process modelling of high pressure PO production processes and utilizes commercial software like Predici and ANSYS. Safety technology related to high pressure PO production processes is also being studied in this research group.  

The above-mentioned setups distinguish this lab from the other PO research groups since all other mentioned in this post do not have such high pressure reactors (to the best of author’s knowledge). LDPE production is done at such extreme conditions. Therefore, the research activities in this lab are mostly relevant to LDPE production technology. 

 

For more details about this research group, go to their website from here.

 

There are other European labs also which are involved in the research related to PO catalysts and processes. Describing all European labs working on PO catalysts and process research is beyond the scope of this blog post.

In conclusion, the research in PO catalysts and processes is still alive in Europe and advancing. The labs mentioned in this blog post have state-of-the-art equipment and they are playing a significant role in keeping the legacy of Ziegler and Natta alive in Europe. Their collaborations with PO industry independently or via DPI is generating high quality scientists/researchers, scientific research articles and patents. Students who are interested in making their career in PO catalysts and process development should keep these research labs in their priority list. 


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