Interview Michael Debije

Name:  Michael Debije

Department:  Chemical Engineering and chemistry

Project / Area:  Stimuli-responsive Functional Materials & Devices

What is your perspective/vision about sustainability?

One of my main thoughts regarding sustainability is that the way people approach living needs to change. Children learn consumerism from their parents, teachers and the media, so there is a culture ofuse it – lose it – throw it away’. We need to open our eyes and have a real understanding that there is a different way of living. We need to change the mindset as a society and from there sustainability will follow.

Unfortunately, even in the Netherlands, many people still drive cars to work, many people do not walk or bike to work when they have the opportunity!! This needs to change! For example, parking at the TU/e is too inexpensive, which is promoting this behavior while there are many alternative ways to travel here.

I think that sometimes if it is not forced, people won’t do it, and currently the system allows you not to be sustainable.

Trends come and go and I believe that sustainability could be a trend, “the cool thing to do”: in this way we would promote this type of responsible behavior and excessive consumerism can go away, but our world view and culture has to change.

As an American, I feel the need to say “I apologize for what is happening”. With Trump in power, it is sometimes sad to know what his perspective on sustainability is.  How can so many people believe that climate scientists are making up environmental problems and ignore the reality – Denial and ignorance are a dangerous mix.

What can be done to improve sustainability?

Teach children at young age that “it is ok to buy used clothing”, “it is ok to ride a bike or not to shower twice a day. “

Sometimes it feels like the way of living in the Western world is causing problems that will be for future generation to suffer and pay for. And when other countries are developing themselves, we rush to stop them because we are selfish and even use the ‘it is not sustainable’ argument in doing so.  We messed things up but should not expect others to suffer for our mistakes.

How is sustainability on Campus shown?

“TU/e University is a good place where information can be shared to improve the sustainability awareness”

I have seen a couple of things changed at University regarding sustainability, small things like the plates being used now at the canteen but much more can be done: for example, I still see plastic cutlery there!

It is nice to see now that in some festivals on the city you get a reusable plastic cup (you pay for it) and then when taken back then you get the money back. This is much better than disposable plastic.

What is your project/research about? Who are the diverse stakeholders of this project?

I work in the group Stimuli-responsive Functional Materials & Devices, and head the Energy cluster. We research on topics like how to control light in a city.

The city is far away from where we generate electricity. When you transport power you lose energy. One solution is using local solar power, but people accepting solar energy is difficult to achieve sometimes. This is because a black panel that looks high tech can be perceived as dangerous: not many people know how to use it or how it works and in occasions they think that there are health risks.

So my idea was to bring solar energy to the city in a different way: using plastic with a colored molecule inside to create luminescent solar concentrators.   In this way, light is absorbed in the material and re-emitted by the colored dye molecules. Light is trapped inside the plastic plate and exits on the edges where there is a solar cell. Using these, panels people only see the colorful plastic, and since it is a sturdy material compared to a traditional solar cell, it can be used as a construction element. It can bring solar energy generation closer to people in a non-threatening and attractive way.

The panels also offer opportunities in other areas. For example: a sound blocking panel that is pleasant to look at and that generates some electricity. Imagine very large areas covered with many color possibilities or objects that generate electricity, like a bench in a public space!

A leaf-inspired luminescent solar concentrator for energy efficient continuous-flow photochemistry.

In Africa or South America, medicines are sometimes difficult to get (e.g. for malaria) but in some cases you can get much of the preventive medicines by processing plants.

We have a project where we are using sunlight to catalyze a chemical reaction (through red light). All colors in the sunlight reaching the material, are changed into red with the special material qualities to be able to use it to start a chemical reaction as you would do it in a lab. This would offer the opportunity of making medicine without the need of other energy source but the sun.

Dark-light windows project

About 40 % of our energy is used in buildings. Heating and cooling is a big portion of the energy used. It can be reduced by using a different type of window, such as an electricity generating window. We have worked to develop a transparent window that collects energy and, when necessary, turns black and back again to allow lighting control in the room. In this way temperature is also better controlled.  The window generates its own energy: the ‘dark and light switching’ technology was transferred to Merck.

Infrared light is what heats your skin: we use liquid crystals to create a window that does not block the visible light but controls infrared light. Heat can either be allowed inside or kept outside while maintaining unimpeded visible connection to the outdoors.

Another area we work on is greenhouses. I am working with Wageningen University in a project regarding ‘Smart greenhouses’, where we can control the heat, light and the color of light passing in the greenhouse to take care of the plants with less impact on electricity consumption.


A leaf-inspired luminescent solar concentrator for energy efficient continuous-flow photochemistry. D. Cambie, F. Zhao, V. Hessel, M. G. Debije, T. Noël, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. DOI: 10.1002/anie.201611101 (VIP publication).



Noise barrier:

Why did you decided to participate in these projects? / What was your motivation/inspiration?

I have a background in high energy physics, biophysics and later moved on to more practical research. I enjoy looking for innovative solutions and projects (pushing what is possible). I focused on the idea of using materials in a different way. Particularly using liquid crystals used in a different way. I have contacts with people from different departments – design, bouwkunde, physics, biology etc. – to expand my knowledge: in the lab is difficult to know what people want. The vision can change a lot by talking to people in different disciplines.

I was inspired by watching science-fiction movies like Blade Runner from 1982. There is scene in which the head of the corporation pushes a button and the windows start turning black, and I thought: how can we do that? (,)

Good scientists look for inspiration everywhere (films, books, talking to people, concerts), and by meeting people from all areas of life and collaborating with others.

What is the impact in a global or local context of your research/project?

If it works, the impact could be enormous. Every surface generating electricity for local use. Whole walls with multi-function with aesthetic appeal as well. One surface would not save the world, but the cumulative surface area might help communities to control their own energy requirements.

Imagine whole buildings generating electricity, medicine and fine chemicals are generated on site from sun, so people do not have to depend on restricted supply lines anymore.

Business is not my strength, I am working for the joy of getting it out. Someone has to try to commercialize some of these ideas! There areany opportunities to try out. Sustainability at the same price!

There is a risk but don’t give up!  

If you could give future students an advice, what would it be?

“Read, read, read” Comics, movie reviews, magazines, science fiction, history books. To change we need to understand people. If you read what they have written you know what it is in their head. That gives you the best information. Get out of the small box with very narrow windows.  Dare to look outside, that opens up the world to you”

Stand up and walk to another department: you’ll be amazed what you can learn there.

Short messages for social media

“Read, read, read” Comics, movie reviews, magazines, science fiction, history books. To change we need to understand people. If you read what they have written you know what it is in their head. That gives you the best information. Get out of the small box with very narrow windows.  Dare to look outside, that opens up the world to you”

“Stand up and walk to another department and work together”

“A transition period is difficult, but the rewards are big”