PhD in the spotlight: Sander Oldenhof

3 March 2015

Sander Oldenhof (1985) will be awarded his doctorate degree at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on 10 March. As part of his doctoral research at the Van ’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS), Oldenhof discovered how catalysts can be used to make hydrogen storage more efficient.

What did you want to know?

‘My main question was: how do catalysts work? Catalysts are substances that accelerate chemical reactions without being consumed in the process. I studied ligand systems, which are the building blocks of catalysts. I looked specifically at the METAMORPhos ligand that was developed at the UvA a few years ago. It facilitates hydrogen storage in carbon dioxide. My research revealed that these ligands play an even bigger role than we had thought.’

How does hydrogen storage work?

‘When carbon dioxide is added to hydrogen gas you get formic acid. Given that formic acid is a liquid, and liquids are much denser than gases, it stands to reason that formic acid has a much smaller volume than hydrogen gas. It is also not explosive. For these reasons, it is a good and safe way of storing hydrogen gas. The catalysts that I have developed and researched convert the formic acid back into hydrogen gas so that it is again possible to use it as fuel. I have discovered that the METAMORPhos ligands play a crucial role in this reaction. After running both experimental and computer models, I arrived at the same result. By using METAMORPhos, it was possible to double the efficiency of storing hydrogen gas as formic acid because METAMORPhos can function as an internal base. This means that it’s no longer necessary to add a base for the reaction.’

Is METAMORPhos already being used for hydrogen storage?

‘Not yet, unfortunately. It’s pricey because the method requires expensive metals. The next step is to see if it’s also possible to use cheaper metals, like iron. Unfortunately, I won’t be conducting that research. I’ve already begun a postdoc at Delft University of Technology, where I’m conducting research on fingerprints in collaboration with the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI). Quite a different subject area, to say the least. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that I won’t be able to continue the research, but, on the other hand, it was time for something new. And, who knows, maybe there will be an opportunity for a new PhD candidate to take on this research in Professor Joost Reek’s research group.’

Are you ready to defend your doctoral thesis?

‘Definitely! My doctoral thesis got back from the printer’s yesterday, so now I just have to wait until I can present my defence. I’m really looking forward to it. One of the best scientists in the field will be on my committee. She’s coming all the way from Japan especially for the occasion. I’ve never seen her, but we’ve worked together via e-mail. It’s an enormous honour that she wants to attend. I hope she’ll have a drink with me afterwards, if she has time.’

Text: Carin Röst

Published by  Faculty of Science