“The dynamism in NanoHybrids is a great experience” – Interview with Victor Baudron, PhD candidate at TUHH
Victor Baudron is one of the early-stage researchers in NanoHybrids. He will soon finalize his PhD. Before he will leave for his next career step in the industry, we took the opportunity to talk to him about his PhD research and his experience with the project.
Victor, you have been involved in the European project NanoHybrids as a PhD candidate at the Institute of Thermal Separation at TUHH from the very beginning. Now you have finished the experimental stage of your PhD project and concentrate on writing your thesis. We would like to take this last opportunity to talk about your experiences in the last 36 months.
Let’s just start – what has your PhD research been about at the Institute of Thermal Separation of Professor Smirnova?
I worked on the production of aerogel micro-particles via the emulsion gelation method. Already used at lab scale when I started, the work in the literature mainly focused on validating the method for specific systems or providing material for small-scale testing purposes, always in a batch set-up. My main objective has been to scale this technic up to demonstrate its industrial readiness but also to allow for the production of adequate quantities for our industrial partners to test the material in relevant set-up and develop the material’s applications. To achieve this objective, an in-depth understanding of the various process steps needed to be drawn, as it was rarely the focus in the literature. A continuous version of the process was developed and a demonstration set-up successfully built.
The emulsion-gelation method is compatible with a variety of gelling systems but I focused my work on the alginate to develop the scale-up concept, trying to get to the fundamentals that could be transferred to other systems. NanoHybrids allowed this to be tested first hand when our academic partners from ARMINES tested the emulsion-gelation with the cellulose system. An effective cooperation was established; them bringing the knowledge of the gelling system and us the knowledge of the process and we successfully produced cellulose aerogel micro-particles and gain further understanding of the process requirements.
What and where did you do your bachelor and master studies? Why did you join the team of Professor Smirnova and how did this happen?
I did my bachelor and master studies at the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering School CPE Lyon in France. My bachelor thesis was at Wacker Chemie in Burghausen in Germany where I worked on several projects in the process development department. Usually done in three months, we had the opportunity to dedicate a whole year in a company for our bachelor thesis. This gave me the opportunity to be involved in a variety of projects and see what really motivated me. After my working experience with Wacker Chemie, I spent the third semester of my master as an ERASMUS student at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Motivated by one of my projects in Wacker and decided to continue my experience abroad, I was searching for a master thesis related with biorefinery topics and was welcomed in the institute of Professor Smirnova. Under the supervision of Dr.-Ing. Carsten Zetzl, in the Biorefinery group, I worked on the deodorization of lignin with supercritical CO2 extraction as a post treatment to valorise the lignin produced during the fractionation of biomass by the liquid hot water process.
At the end of my master thesis there was an open PhD position in the aerogel group of the institute which was financed by Nestlé. I spent the 1st year of my PhD on this Nestlé project and participated to the NanoHybrids proposal writing process. When the project got accepted, I started working on the EU project NanoHybrids (in which Nestlé was also an industrial partner) for my research as well as in the administrative project management for the first year until someone filled the position.
Since when had you been interested in science?
I remember in junior high school, at around 11 or 12, we had some orientation courses and the teacher put us in front of an orientation software to explore different job descriptions. This is at this age that we started to have chemistry and physics courses and I enjoyed how applied it was and how it explained the hows and whys of many things. Somehow browsing this orientation software while searching for chemistry I landed on Chemical Engineer and it seemed to be a nice fit, not that I really understood what it really was about. But from this day on, that was my answer when asked what I wanted to do for a living. My father, a design drafter of occupation, was passionate with mechanical design and always displayed a high level of curiosity for everything around him, using it to fuel its innovation for professional and personal projects. As I grew older, and maybe by some kind of mimicry, so did my curiosity for the world around me and science courses were the one giving answers and thus attracted me. With my two older brothers, one studying applied mathematics and the other IT engineering, I had all the support to carry me further in this direction.
Can you tell us something about the research focus of the Institute of Thermal Separation Processes at TUHH
The Institute touches a lot of different subjects. It is organised in three working groups: the Aerogel Group, the Biorefinery group and the Molecular Methods for Separation Processes group. We have a lot of people researching on a wide range of different topics related to Thermal Separation Processes. Every month we have a group meeting where we retell our advancements and where we all can discuss possible solutions, interpretations or ideas. Cooperation between the three groups is strong and I knew I could always knock on the door of a colleague for support. Professor Smirnova is present in all group meetings. She connects us and brings our subjects together.
Currently, NanoHybrids is one of several projects at the institute. The goal of NanoHybrids is to bring aerogel particle production to an industry relevant scale by developing adapted processes that can meet the applications requirement formulated by our industrial partners.
What did you like about your work?
I like to learn and the working environment really allowed me to learn many things on a wide variety of topics. We always had the possibility to try things out and apply a learning by doing methodology with a lot of freedom in the way to do our research. Our facilities also greatly supported this hands-on experience approach, with access to a large technical hall with space to build various apparatus with the help of the technicians for larger projects, the mechanical and electrical workshop of the university to build custom solutions with the people working there and a smaller workshop to use on our own.
What do you like about NanoHybrids?
I really liked the academic and industrial cooperation. With rapid feedbacks from our industrial partners for the application side, giving direction to the academic work. It is of course a source of many challenges when approaches are constantly challenged on their industrial relevance but finding solutions was of essence for project and all the partners really took it seriously. I also enjoyed the constructive exchanges between academia partner as already mentioned earlier with ARMINES for example. There has been a lot of dynamism in the project and Professor Smirnova has a lot to do with it as she is always pushing for actions and very goal oriented.
It was a great experience to see such a large consortium all working together with a dynamism that I would not have expected from such a diverse group.
The most interesting question now: what are your plans for the next step? Will you stay in academic research and go for an academic career? Would you prefer a job in industry or would founding your own company be an option for you?
Currently I am in the process of writing four papers: the first was successfully published, the second was submitted and is under review, the third is under internal review and I am currently working on the last one. When I am through, I will write my thesis around all the final interpretations I have reached in my publications. Even tough writing all the publications at the end of my project was intense at some times, it permitted me to really write the most extensive interpretations of my results that could only be reached having a truly global picture. On the other hand, the doubt was an inherent part of the process; to see all of his data; what could have been done differently or additionally. Even though the objectives are mostly set from the beginning of the PhD, the methods, solutions and possible experiments are bound to change during most of its duration, making the complete story line evolve over time. But with the first publication accepted without critical modification needed, I feel confident that people should now be able to build their research on my work and push further the experimental work. At the same time I am currently applying for jobs in the industry, preferably in process development or research development; I would like a position that could feed my curiosity and hunger to learn.
Why have you decided to go for this kind of career?
During time of decision, I always think of the commencement speech given by Steve Jobs at the Stanford University. He made a point that he could have never guessed he would arrive where he was, but that in the end, the decisions he took based on his passion and curiosity were the ones that a posteriori were the most decisive in his success. I truly enjoyed my PhD, it gave me the opportunity to learn what I like to do as well as an overview of the academic world. However, I also want new challenges and I assume the industry will give me a chances to discover another world.
Victor, thank you very much for this interview. We will miss you in the NanoHybrids project but we fully understand that you have to move forward. We wish you every success with your future career and hope for a new rope of industry-university research collaboration.
More information :
Victor’s research project: Optimization and scale up of aerogel microparticles