The future of the chemical industry starts in the classroom with Professor Timo Leskinen

Timo Leskinen, Assistant Professor in Chemistry of Circular Economy, teaches circular economy and sustainable chemistry and leads a circular economy research group at the University of Helsinki. This interview by Alon Nudler was previously published in Chemistrynews -journal.

In December of 2021, the Department of Chemistry announced a new professorship in chemistry in circular economy. It was this announcement that played a major role in Alon Nudlers (writer of this story) decision to leave the Netherlands and attend further studies here in Helsinki. 

Appointed in May of 2023, Dr Timo Leskinen was selected for this position and has spent the last several months laying the foundations for his research and contributions to the education of future chemists. In late January 2024, the two of us sat down to talk about some of the progress and ideas he had been working on as well as how his experiences have helped shape his vision of a more sustainable economy.   


One thing that is immediately clear in Leskinen’s vision is the need to involve students in a more active conversation with industry partners. Timo Leskinen himself spent the past 6 years working for St1, a major Finnish energy company. At St1 he observed most of the lifespan of the first softwood-based bioethanol plant in the world. To overcome the challenges faced in this new process type, he performed years of extensive research at a smaller pilot facility. Although the demonstration plant ultimately concluded that this technology had too many shortcomings, Timo Leskinen regards this outcome as “unfortunate, but insightful”.  

 “There was an expectation that the lignin valorization market would have been open a few years after the plant was opened” he explains, “and while bioethanol production from the sawdust was shown to be viable, the large quantities of lignin produced in the process would have needed a better application than use as energy”. In an interview with to Maaseudun Tulevaisuus in March 2021, St1 stated that the lignin would condense in the reactor and would have to be cleaned every few days. These buildups ultimately lowered the plant’s estimated yearly production from 10 to just 2 million litres a year.   

The decision to leave the industry was one of the hardest I’ve had to make.

For Timo Leskinen, one important lesson here is one of mass balance. “One thing it taught me is the need to be very accurate from the start. If your calculations are based on information that is off to start with, many process steps later you will end up with a very different outcome then you expected.” This is something that is not as often encountered in academia, which was one reason why he is encouraging more students to participate in interactions with industry partners.   

 One way he hopes to do this is by organizing an industry seminar day where companies can talk to students about their sustainability research and career paths students could follow. “I hope that when these chemists from industry come in, students will get to hear about their job descriptions and what kind of work they carry out, which will in turn generate interest from students” he explains. “Additionally, internships and summer work at these companies are very important pieces in this process, and something which companies are eager to partake in”.   

 This importance of industry in questions of a more circular economy is also a reason why the professorship is funded by several companies, with big industry names such as Neste, UPM, and Borealis Polymers providing substantial endowments. As part of the original plan for the professorship, they expressed a keen interest in advancing research and driving new innovations within the circular economy.   


The motivation to do research and the freedom that came with it was a major reason for Timo Leskinen to leave industry and return to academia. “I wanted to have the ability to change topics when I want to, to work with different research questions in different areas of the circular economy. I really enjoyed my time in industry and the decision to leave was one of the hardest I’ve had to make”.   

 “We can definitely develop a stronger safety culture here in Finland”.  

  When asked about his plans for the research group he will head, Timo Leskinen is quick to name three key practices he hopes to adopt. “First, the research must show that the process is economically feasible; it will be impossible to change the world otherwise. The techno-economic feasibility of the process being investigated should be considered from an early stage by the researchers”. He also admits that this mentality is to an extent at odds with what “traditional” academic research tends to follow, but in his opinion this is too important to exclude when dealing with sustainable chemistry.   

Another key practice is safety. “I noticed a bigger difference how safety is dealt with here when I spent time in the United States” he says, “and I must say that we can definitely learn from them and develop a stronger safety culture here in Finland.” He explains that while doing his doctorate at the North Carolina State University under professor Argyropoulos, they had members of staff who spent considerable time inspecting the labs and ensuring that everyone was working in a safe manner.   

 “We even had peer evaluations where one research group goes to another group’s lab to mark them on their safety.” This is a practice he believes is a healthy one and that he would be happy to start at the department. For him, the benefits of having this safety culture are such that it makes scientists more mindful and ensures a better workplace for everyone involved.  

A student who understands this demonstrates systemic thinking and will hopefully seek solutions to solve this problem.

 The final key practices he would like to share with his researchers are affinity for engineering skills and the need for a diverse skillset between members. “Ideally no two postdocs would bring the same skills to the group, rather, it would be better if they are trained in different fields and can come together to form a multi-scientific group.” One example of a skill he gives is a process flow chart in the engineering sense of the word. “From my time at St1, I would say that it is a worthwhile skill for a researcher to develop.”   


In addition to building up his research group, Timo Leskinen has also spent time in the past months developing several courses on circular chemical economy aimed at students in the bachelor’s program. When explaining which group of students he is motivated to lecture to, he says “It is important to involve students early in their development when proposing changes to the system”.   

 The first course is for students who study in the Finnish bachelor’s program and was developed over the summer with the help of master’s student Lilia Sirén. The course presents a general introduction to the topic and the key drivers for the need to develop one. “We hope to engage the students by providing several example processes across different fields of chemistry as a way to teach systemic thinking. At the same time, we hope to demonstrate the different opportunities they might have in the future as chemists be it through research or industry work”.    

According to Timo Leskinen, systemic thinking is an academic skill that is not as well covered at the university as possible. This is exemplified in the understanding of the forestry carbon cycle. “In its current form, the paper loop produces lignin, which we have no valid way to repurpose. As such, all carbon processed by the industry will eventually end up incinerated, and thus be emitted as CO2. A student who can understand this demonstrates systemic thinking and will hopefully seek solutions to solve this problem”.   

The second is a set of courses for Una Europa, a “European inter-university environment”, of which University of Helsinki is a proud member. Although these courses are still being developed, they will work in cooperation with existing courses as a means to strengthen the key messages through shared examples and content. To underline the importance of these courses, the department recently welcomed Dr. Mohammad Alzeer as a university lecturer to both develop and teach these courses.   

 The first course for the bachelor’s program is being taught for the first time this spring. Leskinen’s motivation and keen interest in the subject will hopefully be well received by the students. From there, the hope is that other courses will also provide their students with moments of reflection and opportunities to interact with questions of circular economy, such that the sole responsibility of training chemists on this matter does not fall solely on a handful of courses in the bachelor’s and master’s program. As Timo Leskinen puts it, “Hopefully by introducing these concepts in every level of the program, we can encourage students to really dig deeper as part of their education”.   

This interview by Alon Nudler was originally published in Kemiauutiset2024. Kemiauutiset/Keminyheter/Chemistrynews is an annual magazine published by the Department of Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, which provides current news on studies, research, science education and introduces interesting people.