3° with Marc-Olivier Coppens

by Michael Mullaney on June 1, 2011

Marc-Olivier Coppens is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer. We ask him about his work:

Q: Your research group is called “Nature Inspired Chemical Engineering.” What does that mean, exactly?

A: We look for fundamental mechanisms underlying the efficiency of natural systems (like lungs, trees and cellular membranes) from the perspective of a chemical engineer – who is interested in molecular and energetic transformations, separations, scaling-up and robustness – and then use those principles to guide the design of solutions to similar problems in technology. These include new solutions to energy and chemical challenges, like new catalysts, membranes, reactors, fuel cells, adaptive materials, etc. Nature inspired chemical engineering is not biomimetics in the narrower sense of imitating nature, because solutions need to be adapted to the required context, and design is based on fundamental mechanisms rather than appearances.

Why do you draw your inspiration from nature?

Nature is a complex, evolved system that is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. We have so much to learn from it! More sustainable solutions to technological and other challenges can be (or should be?) discovered by working with, and learning from nature, rather than producing at the expense of nature. Nature provides amazing guidance to providing efficient solutions to some of our Grand Challenges, like those concerning energy and water.

You’re a proud Belgian. I passed through Belgium on the train from Paris to Rotterdam, but sadly didn’t have a chance to stop there. What’s Belgium like?

Belgium is a beautiful country, small but incredibly rich with history and art. It is flat near the coast and hilly further south, with a mild, but often-rainy climate. Low lands with low clouds. My town, Ghent, even has a mediaeval castle, right in its center. Belgium is also famous for what is arguably the best chocolate, the tastiest beer, delicious food, and is the home of “French fries” (that’s right!). The capital, Brussels, is also the center of the European Union and NATO, and Belgium has one of the largest ports in the world, Antwerp, which partly explains its importance for trade and industry. It also holds the record of the longest time without government! There are three national languages: Flemish (Dutch), French and German. The Flemish in the north and the Walloons from the south constantly argue politically, and cannot perceive, what is more obvious to an outsider, that the union is more than the parts and that there are so many more commonalities than differences. But isn’t that a universal problem with humans?

What do you love most about being a researcher and professor?

I love the intellectual opportunity to freely explore and discover, and the unique chance to pass that excitement on to the next generation, to work with and guide students – to equip them with not just tools, but help them to foster a fresh, critical state of mind that allows them to approach challenging problems in a responsible way.

What’s the most challenging part of being a researcher and professor?

Prioritizing, as well as raising money to do exciting research are practical challenges, but one of the greatest ones, which I actually enjoy, is to constantly innovate and be adaptive, whether it is in research or in education, in an ever-changing social and cultural context.

You’ve taught all over the world: from the United States to Norway, China, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Which country has the best food?

Here is some food for thought: Local food is always the best. I am a food lover, so I have enjoyed great food everywhere I lived or traveled, even though some localities have more variation in their daily diet than other places. Food in my native Belgium is delicious. The diversity of flavors in China is simply amazing.

When you’re not in the lab or classroom, what do you like to do for fun?

My interests are boundless, but time is lacking to explore many of them as much as I’d like. In general, I love life and the diversity that our planet offers, in nature, its people, experiences, arts, … Daily, I read and listen to music. I also like to be physically active: I swim regularly, hike, and have engaged (on and off) in a variety of other sports. A great art lover, I also like to explore artistic activities myself, as much as I enjoy traveling – I have traveled widely, from Central Asia to the Okavango and Svalbard. Whenever I have a chance, I like to explore new places. Mostly, I enjoy spending time with good friends, nearby or in far corners of the world.

Read more about Coppens’ research here, and a recent news story on him here.