24 June 2015

New associate professor calculates for a cleaner environment

Chemistry tutors

Quantum mechanical calculations of what happens as fluids flow over mineral surfaces don’t sound remotely like anything of relevance to the environment or health. Unless you are Martin Andersson, a newly employed associate professor at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Chemistry. Andersson dreams of seeing his research contribute to a cleaner and healthier planet.

Oil to protect environment

Andersson develops methods to calculate chemical changes in the surfaces of fluids, calculations that can be deployed by his NanoGeoScience research section to develop ways of improving oil recovery, and he is steadfast in his belief that this can protect the environment.

“There is a lot of talk about opening new oil fields in the Arctic and other incredibly fragile environments. If we can provide oil companies with the knowledge of how to recover more oil from current oil fields, we can protect nature from a great many troubles. In any event, we will be needing oil for a few years to come,” states the associate professor.

Understanding living minerals can lead to stronger materials

New insight into what happens in the interface between fluids and minerals can also be used for research into what is termed biomineralisation, or how growth occurs in ‘living’ minerals such as bone and teeth. First and foremost, biomineralisation knowledge can be used to understand illnesses such as osteoporosis and kidney stones, but once we understand how nature creates strong materials like mollusc shells out of something as fragile as calcium carbonate, we can begin to create artificial composites that are both light and strong. Funnily enough, Andersson doesn't have any specific hopes for whether his methods will be used for research into illness or materials.

"You never know what is going to save lives in the long run. It could be a cure for a disease, or a new material that prevents buildings from collapsing

Martin Andersson

Associate Professor

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

“You never know what is going to save lives in the long run. It could be a cure for a disease, or a new material that prevents buildings from collapsing,” says Martin Andersson.

Refining method for new domain

Andersson works with a calculation method called COSMO-RS. Originally developed to calculate thermodynamic properties for fluids, Andersson has extended its development to calculate the surface tension between two fluids, or between a fluid and a gas. But for now, it remains problematic when applied between fluids and solid surfaces. For the next 3-5 years, Andersson will refine the method until it works within this context as well.

Fruitful collaborations between theory and experiment

In his work to expand the calculation method’s usefulness, Andersson finds it very useful to work with his more experimentally minded colleagues in the NatGeoScience section. Thanks to their efforts, he will be able to rapidly verify whether his latest theories work in practice.

“If the experiment doesn't work, it may be due to an error in the experiment, or in my method. Interaction is quite direct. And for me, that's the key to having fun,” says Associate Professor Andersson.

Better tutor when having fun

Besides his collaboration with the experimentalists, Andersson also enjoys teaching and developing new teaching methods. Along with other Department of Chemistry instructors, he is slowly diverging from traditional lecture types where students sit still and listen. Instead he uses ‘peer instruction’, a teaching method where students are posed with problems that must then be discussed with fellow students and instructors until correct answers emerge.

“I really enjoy direct interaction with students. I also like the fact that I gain an immediate sense of whether they have understood what I am trying to teach them. It makes it more fun for me to teach. And when I am having fun, I'm a better teacher,” says Associate Professor Martin Andersson.

Martin Andersson is 40-years-old. After obtaining his PhD from Lund University, he worked as a postdoc at both DTU and UCPH. He lives in Hässleholm, Sweden with his partner Monica and their 13 year-old girl and 7- and 8-year-old sons.