Interview: Peter de Peinder
Unravelling a myriad of bonds by spectroscopy
Peter de Peinder PhD has maintained warm relations with the Utrecht University Analytical Molecular Spectroscopy Group ever since he was a student. Even now he has his own company VibSpec, he still does research for Utrecht University and is as SME involved in the CatchBio Smart Mix consortium. De Peinder is specialized in infrared and Raman spectroscopy as well as the chemometrics attached to it to analyse spectra. “The knowledge of instrumentation in general is declining. That is not a big deal when you perform standardized measurements, but once you leave the well-trodden paths that becomes problematic.” CatchBio operates at the cutting edge of measurement and interpretation.
“Spectroscopy measurements have become plug and play. There are pros and cons to that. You can learn to master a modern spectroscope in an afternoon. If you know what to expect from measurements and the results don’t comply with that, you know that something must be wrong. But when you don’t know what to expect, you’re at loss. You run the risk of ignoring artefacts but also potentially important information”, De Peinder explains his regret about the declining knowledge of instrumentation knowledge in chemistry. “But that’s how it works, an in-house specialist is expensive and hence this knowledge has become neglected.” Good for de Peinder’s company Vibspec, by the way, which offers vibrational spectroscopy expertise to sectors ranging from the polymer and food to the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries.
De Peinder was educated as a chemist at Utrecht University and worked at Philips Research in materials research as vibrational spectroscopy specialist. He remained connected to the analytical molecular spectroscopy group projects, consultancy and his promotion research – which took place when he was already involved in VibSpec. “If you want to develop new methods, and new ways of measuring, you have to be aware of the knowledge behind easy-to-use instrumentation and what (im)possibilities there are attached to measurements.”
As this rare specialized measurement knowledge would have added value to CatchBio, de Peinder was invited by Utrecht chemistry professor Bert Weckhuysen to apply for a CatchBio Smart Mix subsidy. De Peinder: “CatchBio is part of our future, so it is interesting for VibSpec to be involved in that, to bring in vibrational spectroscopy knowledge and to enlarge our network in this field. Involvement also offers the opportunity to enhance our own knowledge, which is the company’s most valuable asset. What is better than to combine research and business?”
The participation also has its downsides, de Peinder learned, such as the paperwork and overhead attached to it. The content, however, is a very satisfying aspect. “I can learn whatever I hoped to learn. I contribute to the project by supporting PhD students to measure better, to improve their data interpretation. This consultation and steering enables them to get better results.”
Small steps ahead
The sheer complexity of the materials involved makes CatchBio research the cutting edge of vibrational spectroscopy. Measurement is no more difficult than in other research, but the interpretation of the data is very complicated. Chemometrics is the mathematical approach that has the potential to enhance the interpretation. There is no method for in real time situ lignin measurement yet. That is because the spectroscopy technology measures the entire myriad of bonds taking place at once, which causes all bonds to overlap. How can you distinguish individual bonds, preferably all of them, in that situation? If we find the answers, we know how lignin solves as the result of reactions. That is the challenge. We keep on searching and optimizing, make small steps ahead and hope to get where we want eventually.”