Tête-à-Tête Series- Prof. Bendiks Jan Boersma

It has been three months into the new academic year. Yet to many students, TU Delft still doesn’t seem like home. We know you miss the sense of familiarity that grows when you get excited at the discovery of a study zone in the building, when you secretly revel at securing your study spot in the silent room or when you find a course that fits your interests, hand in glove. 

There is confusion lurking the corners of your mind as you wonder how this article will extend a befitting welcome. While it is beyond our powers to give you this exact experience, we intend to recreate it in your mind through a series of articles and interviews with the faculty, staff and students of the department who know the nook and corner of it. 

For our first interview, we sat down for a chat with our Head of Department, Professor Bendiks Jan Boersma, to discuss the structure and organization of the department, our research goals and the opportunities TU Delft offers for its students. 

For those who don’t know you, can you give us a little background about yourself, your research interests and role as Head of Department?

I am currently a Professor in Energy Technology and Head of the EFPT Department. After completing my PhD in Fluid Mechanics at the TU Delft in 1997, I spent two years at Stanford University. I have been a Professor at TU Delft since 1999 and became the Head of the Department in 2013. As HOD, I am responsible for defining an overarching research goal for the department, allocating funds, and ensuring a seamless line of communication and co-operation between the various sections. As a research organisation we would love to support staff and students in their pursuits, but as HOD I must make some challenging decisions regarding the budgeting and line of research.

My research is centred around numerical simulation of transport phenomena, heat transfer and related energy technology concepts.

The Mission statement of EFPT states that the department is working on ‘’World-Class Research & Education Focusing on Process & Energy Technologies for Sustainable Development”.  What are some of the global challenges that EFPT aims to address?

We work on reducing the dependence of society on fossil fuels and are actively involved in tackling various challenges of this complex transformation. There is a large demand for fossil- based energy carriers; in the energy industry to produce power and in the chemical industry as feedstock. In addition, natural gas and coal are also used to meet the heating demand of various industries. Finding an alternative to conventional energy sources is not as easy as it sounds and there is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done to make it a reality. For example, we are exploring the possibility of electrification of the industry, synthesis of biofuels or syngas through biomass gasification, on the production of hydrogen along with carbon capture, and production of synthetic fuels like methanol from hydrogen. While as stand-alone concepts, these are not new to the research community, the challenge lies in integrating them at the large scale while keeping the efficiency in mind. Our core research attempts to answer fundamental questions and to understand the various components that will build a systemic change.

What is the structure of EFPT as an organization? 

Ideally, I see the department as one unit with all of us working on tackling a variety of problems. But given the large number of people working at EFPT, we have 3 clusters within the department: Fluid Mechanics, Process technology and Energy Technology. From an administrative and financial point of view, the department has 6 sections with their respective chairs. The divisions are not written in stone and the organisation is quite collaborative and flexible. However, I must mention that I do miss out on seeing some of my colleagues from the Fluids department since the Process and Fluids labs are currently stationed in two different buildings.

Research is one of the integral components of the department. Instead of asking you to brief us about the research areas explored by the EFPT faculty, we would like to start by asking you ‘what’s new?’

As I already discussed, we work on several areas such as the production of hydrogen, carbon capture and energy transition. But what’s new with the research in the department are the techniques we use and the infrastructure we build to aid our research. For example, fifty years ago, we did not have optical measuring. Today, we know to use laser beams to visualise flows that are optically accessible. The question we seek to answer today, is therefore, how to visualise opaque flows. For this, we are investigating if Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), that is popular in the medical field, can be employed as a technique for visualising such flows. In this sense, we seek inspiration from diverse fields to equip ourselves with better tools for our research. 

Furthermore, computers are getting better and this has pushed the boundaries of theoretical research. We have known how to describe a system or a process through mathematical equations and now we have better numerical tools to also solve them. As a result, we can make better comparisons between experiments and numerical predictions.

Since we touched upon the global challenges EFPT aims to tackle, we can imagine that they often require multidisciplinary solutions. With respect to this, what are some other departments within TUD that EFPT works closely with?

Within the faculty of 3mE, EFPT works closely with almost all departments. In EFPT, we work on building high efficiency turbines and this requires us to investigate materials that can withstand high temperature and pressures. Having mentioned our efforts in energy transition, we can expect renewable energy sources to come with large fluctuations in load and hence we work with Material Sciences in emerging with the most suitable materials. With the Maritime Department, we work on estimating the forces in flows around ships and in optimising ship propulsion systems. In EFPT, we understand the physics of phenomena and dynamics of a system quite well. To devise efficient controls for our processes, we collaborate with the Controls Department . We also work with the Biomedical Department on understanding physiological flows such as blood flows.

Outside of 3mE, the study of water quality and the energy aspects involved in producing clean water requires us to collaborate with the Civil Engineering Department. We also work with the Chemical Engineering Department in investigations of flows and processes. We have a gas turbine group in EFPT that works closely with the Aerospace Department as well. 

Public- Private shared innovation programs like VoltaChem present interesting challenges as stakeholders of diverse interests are involved in technology development and implementation.In your opinion, what are some of the challenges that such ventures present to students?

EFPT works with large companies such as Tata Steel and Shell which also sponsor many of our PhD and research projects. There are many small-medium size companies that come to us with technical difficulties they are facing, and we help them with it. We collaborate with TNO on various projects out of which Voltachem is a unique public-private collaboration between EFPT, TNO and the industry.  

The challenge with a project like VoltaChem is that it is a collaboration that has parties with private interests and TU Delft is an institution funded by the Dutch Government. What this means is that we have some restrictions on using our infrastructure and knowledge in serving the interests of a private party. As a student you are always welcome to work on a project such as VoltaChem. However, there are legal personnel in the department who aid us through the process.

Having discussed the collaborations of EFPT in some detail, we can imagine that inspirations strike from all corners. What steers the research lines of the Department? What is your role in it as the Head of the Department?

It has always been bottom-up. Perhaps there is a student or a professor who wants to explore a new idea. Sometimes, a company approaches us with an innovative idea they would like to try out and require our help with it. Many students come to us with ideas for their Master project and we are happy to discuss it and evaluate its feasibility. If there is enough material and the science is well developed, we start working on it. Things just start!

Of course, if such is the case, the research scope gets very diverse. It then becomes my task to combine things again and ensure convergence. Almost 60-70% of the work done in the group adheres quite well to our research goals. However, there are always students and researchers working on interesting ideas that don’t necessarily fit the mould.

Students have nice ideas. If we can help them, we do! And research lines start.

TU Delft offers many opportunities for learning and skill development. Apart from classroom learning, what are the other venues through which students can nurture their interests?

TU Delft provides a lot of opportunities to grow. We have companies like Zero Emission Fuels (ZEF) within the department and many dream teams in the university that students can choose to join. Working with these teams helps students to understand non-technical challenges of a project and acquire essential skills such as teamwork, project management and much more. As a department, we also support students who approach us with their entrepreneurial ventures. We are always ready to lend our facility and expertise to assist them in their start-up.

Having completed our first year in the Master programme, we personally found the TU Delft curriculum very challenging. We have come to appreciate the importance of developing good communication skills and being creative and independent in thought. Given your extensive teaching and research experience, what would you list as some of the technical and non-technical skills that you expect out of an EFPT Master graduate?

Interpersonal skills are extremely important. It is essential that students learn how to communicate their ideas within a team. We already discussed the multidisciplinary nature of the projects we handle. What this means to a researcher is that he/she must understand the diverse nature of the project and appreciate the contribution of others in the group. 

As an engineer, students are also expected to support their claims or approach with sound evidence. Often in industries, detailed analysis is replaced by well- informed estimates or ‘back of the envelope’ calculations. There are no exact numbers in a model of reality or in experiments. Hence, students must be comfortable working with estimates. You must be able to make intelligent guesses and gauge the reliability of these guesses

Do you have any general remarks for EFPT students?

At TU Delft, there is no dearth of opportunities outside the standard curriculum. You can find the opportunities that fit your interests either through a dream team, research group, start-up, or any other activity. Think about what you want to do after graduating from the university and make choices based on that. Your goal should not be just about ECTS points.