'Belgian Nobel Prize' for pioneering work by Professor Veronique Van Speybroeck

Veronique Van Speybroeck

Professor Veronique Van Speybroeck is one of the world's leading researchers concerning sustainable technologies. For making groundbreaking contributions to the computer modelling of catalysis, she wins the prestigious Francqui Prize for Exact Sciences.

From gambling to predictability

Catalysis, where a specific substance – the catalyst – speeds up a chemical process without being used up itself, is involved in many of the chemical processes that we encounter every day, from washing clothes with detergents to purifying air and water to transforming crude oil into useful materials. Finding catalysts and the optimal operating conditions has traditionally been no more than educated guesswork.

Instead of this trail-and-error approach, Ghent University professor Veronique Van Speybroeck (Faculty of Engineering and Architecture and Faculty of Science) has developed a precise method with her research mapping the behaviour of catalysts.

“Most industrial chemical processes rely on catalysis,” says professor Ben Feringa, Nobel laureate in Chemistry and jury chairman. “Thanks to her pioneering work, we can meticulously understand and explain these complex processes.”

Computer models that bring all factors together

Van Speybroeck uses computer models to predict which materials can function as catalysts and what conditions yield the best results. Factors such as temperature, humidity, and the clever combination of chemical elements can significantly impact the catalyst’s performance.

She does this with remarkable accuracy, using sophisticated quantum simulations to consider the many parameters that affect catalysis. 

Game changer for practical applications

Professor Van Speybroeck bridges fundamental research and practical application, which specifically impressed the international jury. She develops theoretical models for real-world use.

These models lay the groundwork for new catalysts and nanomaterials that could, for example, capture and convert a greenhouse gas like CO2 into circular chemicals, store green hydrogen efficiently for transport, or detect and capture volatile harmful substances in the air. “Her fundamental work is a game-changer,” says Feringa, “and it opens the door to future technologies for a sustainable industry.”

Looking over the wall

Her research takes place on the smallest conceivable scale, the nanoscale, and is at the intersection of physics, chemistry, (bio-)engineering and materials sciences. “I enjoy exploring other domains and learning from people who are not in my field,” says Professor Van Speybroeck. “By being open to things you don’t know and collaborating with people from different backgrounds, we can analyse and resolve the most complex problems from various angles. When we think outside of the box, beautiful science becomes possible.”

Today, Professor Van Speybroeck and her team are advancing their research on artificial intelligence and machine learning to forecast the behaviour of realistic, often imperfect, materials.

The Francqui Prize: A prestigious award

The Francqui Prize is sometimes called the 'Belgian Nobel Prize' , because of its rich history and international character. The Francqui Foundation (founded in 1932 by the then President of the United States and the Belgian diplomat Emile Francqui) awards 250,000 euros each year to a scientist, alternating between exact sciences, humanities and biological and medical sciences. Several laureates of the Francqui Prize were awarded international prizes later in their careers, some even the Nobel Prize. King Filip of Belgium will hand over the award in the upcoming ceremony.

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