Jitte Flapper, R&D team leader at AkzoNobel, is on a quest to find the perfect paint: easily applicable and not harmful to the environment or to the painter’s health. Collaboration with UvA's Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Science (HIMS) is essential for him to succeed.
Fancy giving the window frames a lick of paint on a fine day? No problem. Pick up a can of paint from the DIY store and after a few hours of elbow grease you can get the job done. Few people are aware that a seemingly simple can of paint contains a technical masterpiece. ‘It seems like a simple product,’ says Jitte Flapper of AkzoNobel. ‘But it changes all the time; over the past forty years we’ve replaced all the ingredients several times.’ Flapper has joined forces with the UvA to find a way to make paint even better.
Working with his R&D department, Flapper focuses on improving paint to make it cheaper and more sustainable. Legislation is changing. For example, since 2010, fewer solvents can be used in paint. Sufficient reason for Flapper to head off in search of paint needing fewer solvents. ‘That was a challenge, because you actually need thinners; otherwise the paint is like chocolate paste, which makes brushwork difficult,’ he explains. ‘It took lots of hard work to achieve, but we’ve succeeded: a beautifully spreadable paint using less solvent.’
Paint contains metallic compounds: molecules with a metal atom. These are needed for the paint to dry. ‘The metallic compounds act as catalysts in the chemical drying reaction. They are necessary, but together with the UvA we’re looking for alternatives that are less harmful to the environment.’
‘Developing a catalyst like this is a highly specialised task. We’ve engaged the chemists at UvA-HIMS because they’re experts at making new catalysts. They have excellent lab facilities and greater access to the latest developments and scientific insights. The researchers have extensive experience in catalysts and have developed a wide range of research techniques. At the university, they want to understand exactly how the reaction works. We’re satisfied if it works. Only if we want to replace something and it doesn’t work after giving it a try do we start questioning why. And the university is the best place for answers.’
Can the university, in turn, learn something from the industry? ‘At university it’s all about knowledge. Research there takes place under ideal conditions, with a perfectly clean environment for reactions. However, if I want to use their findings in making paint, I have to deal with a lot of ingredients – it’s anything but clean. Through us, the university learns about actual practice. They can take this into account in the techniques they develop, helping to ensure that this knowledge is actually applied in practice.’