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The Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry (HRSMC) has honored a proposal for PhD research written by chemistry student Tessel Bouwens (University of Amsterdam). It is the result of her participation in the special HRSMC Master's programme. Tessel will start her PhD research in November, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO.

Tessel Bouwens will receive her UvA Master's degree on 7 December. Photo by Lonneke Hoogstede.

The interuniversity HRSMC Excellence Master 'Sustainability: the Molecular Approach’ prepares talented chemistry students for a scientific career. Researchers of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the VU University Amsterdam (VU) and Leiden University (the HRSMC partners) composed a unique, demanding and interdisciplinary programme characterised by strong integration of theory, spectroscopy and synthesis. Only the best 10 percent of the chemistry students are eligible for the excellence programme.

PhD proposal

A crucial part of the excellence programme is the preparation of a proposal for PhD research to be performed by the students themselves. The best proposals are rewarded with an actual PhD position, financed through the Graduate Programme of NWO.

This year the proposal of UvA chemistry student Tessel Bouwens survived the scrutiny of a broad panel of experts. According to the panel her proposal excelled not only in academic quality but also in its interdisciplinary and interuniversity approach, illustrative of both the Excellence Master and the HRSMC Research School.

Molecular Shuttle

Tessel Bouwens proposes to develop a 'molecular shuttle' that can enhance the performance of so-called dye-sensitized photoelectrochemical cells (DSPECs). These molecule-based light harvesting devices use solar energy to drive fuel synthesis, for instance from water and carbon dioxide. They thus are able to store solar energy by means of conversion into chemical energy.

Picture: HIMS.

Because of their molecular design DSPECs can in principal be 'tuned' for many chemical conversions. However, a current major drawback of DSPECs is their low efficiency. This arises from mismatching timescales of electron generation by sunlight on the one hand and of the chemical (catalytic) conversion utilizing these electrons on the other. As a result many generated electrons are 'wasted' because of so-called electron-hole recombination.

Increase efficiency

Bouwens aims at a photoredox driven rotaxane-based molecular shuttle that is capable of transporting the generated electrons, thus creating charge separation and enabling the pivotal proton reduction step in the process of solar fuel synthesis. This could substantially increase the efficiency of water splitting DSPECs.

During her PhD research at the Homogeneous, Supramolecular and Bio-Inspired Catalysis group of her promotor Prof. Joost Reek at the Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS, UvA), Bouwens will design and create such a molecular shuttle and incorporate it in in the cathodic half-cell of a DSPEC to produce hydrogen. She will study its working mechanism in cooperation with co-promotor Prof. Sander Woutersen of the Molecular Photonics group at HIMS by means of time-resolved measurements on rotaxane shuttling and photo-induced electron transfer in catalytic systems. Together with her second co-promotor Prof. Lucas Visscher (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) she plans to study charge transport and charge recombination by means of Density Functional Theory modelling.

The selection panel of the HRSMC Excellence Programme consisted of Prof. Henk Hiemstra (UvA) of the HRSMC research comittee, HRSMC board members Prof. Kees Elsevier (UvA) and Prof. Marc Koper (Leiden University), and HRSMC scientific director Prof. Wybren Jan Buma (UvA).

The Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry is a consortium of three Dutch Universities: the University of Amsterdam, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Leiden University. HRSMC has been approved by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 1994. It provides an extensive training programme for PhD students in chemistry and offers a high quality research environment. The HRSMC is the only research school in the Netherlands that addresses societal challenges in areas such as sustainability, energy, and health from a molecular perspective.