New professorship in chemistry of circular economy at the University of Helsinki thanks to support from business partners

The University of Helsinki is taking a significant step towards a more sustainable future by establishing a new professorship in chemistry of circular economy. Neste, UPM and Borealis Polymers are providing substantial endowments in support of the position.

Finland has the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2035, which means that we are facing a transformation of raw materials. The circular economy will help us utilise materials and products as efficiently as possible, conserving natural resources, reducing emissions and waste, as well as improving the wellbeing of people and nature.

The field of the professor of chemistry of circular economy will encompass chemical recycling and the utilisation of by-product streams. Recruitment to the position has just commenced. The new position enables the University to strengthen its expertise in the natural sciences and experimental research in the field of circular economy with a long-term and multidisciplinary approach.

“We are excited to contribute to this professorship as it will advance basic research and drive new innovations within the circular economy,” says Lars Peter Lindfors, Senior Vice President of Innovation at Neste.

“Especially the areas of waste plastics chemical recycling and converting the lignocellulosic residues to fuels, polymers or chemicals are of special interest to us in the scope of this professorship. We see this partnership also as an opportunity to further strengthen our R&D network in Finland and support the Veturi research ecosystem,” Lindfors says.

“In the future we need more and more special expertise and know-how in chemistry. We believe that this professorship and cooperation with partners will help to develop both the industry and our own business. Moreover, it highlights the role of University of Helsinki as a frontrunner of the circular economy”, says Heikki Ilvespää, VP, Research and Development at UPM.

“The University of Helsinki is extremely grateful for these endowments, which enable us to respond to societal demand and launch a new professorship more quickly than usual,” says Chancellor Kaarle Hämeri.

Demand for experts in the circular economy

“The circular economy is the future,” says Tea Friman from the Porvoo Innovation Centre of Borealis.

“Many materials are too valuable to end up as waste. Instead, they should be recovered and reprocessed into final products. Basic research in chemistry will help us discover new advanced solutions based on the circular economy. In assessing the best solutions, this kind of long-term collaboration with the academic community is extremely valuable to us.”

Finland is well placed to become a leader in the circular economy. At the same time, we sorely need new methods relevant to the field whose development, in turn, requires profound understanding of chemical processes and reactions. The new permanent professorship enables the long-term development of the field, broad-based research and teaching as well as networking.

“Renewable and recyclable products and solutions that replace fossil-based raw materials are at the core of UPM’s business. A circular economy is about maximizing the circulation of all materials. We are already today quite advanced in circulating fiber-based products and production side streams, but in many  areas, such as in food packaging, there is still a lot to do,“ says Ilvespää from UPM.

High-quality and long-term basic research lays a solid foundation for developing new innovations and educating new top-level specialists.

“We are overjoyed about the positive reception that our initiative has elicited among companies involved in the circular economy and in various interest groups. Educating future experts is considered particularly important in the field,” says Ilkka Kilpeläinen, professor of organic chemistry.

A novel collaboration platform to be built around the professorship

Through their donations, Neste, UPM and Borealis Polymers have made it possible to establish the new professorship. However, this is not the full extent of the partnership. In addition, the businesses will establish a novel collaboration platform together with the professor and students.

“Instead of having to start from scratch, it’s really important for the new professor to have excellent partners supporting them from the get-go. This way, research and innovation cooperation will get off to a good start, which is also extremely important for the students,” says Dean Kai Nordlund of the Faculty of Science.

Chancellor Hämeri, too, highlights the importance of partners.

“To promote our core duties and societal impact, we at the University of Helsinki want to build long-term partnerships in line with our values,” Hämeri says.

A number of circular economy innovations have already been generated by the University of Helsinki in cooperation with industry, including the Ioncell textile fibre and a plant oil–based packaging component.

Recruitment underway

The recruitment of the new professor is already underway. A person with in-depth knowledge of organic chemistry, familiarity with separation techniques and personal understanding of the composition and availability of raw materials is sought for the position. Prior experience of collaboration with the industry is also considered an asset.

The field of the professorship is basic research in organic chemistry and its application in chemical processes.

The University will provide the appointee with a substantial start-up package for the establishment of a research group, as well as an excellent research environment and an exceptionally strong infrastructure.

“We believe that chemistry of circular economy will hold a vital and increasing role in society, which is why we want to invest in it,” Nordlund emphasises.

Read more about the recruitment of the new professor.