Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

Nature-inspired Chemical Process Design


Former 2007/2008 Natural Sciences - Medicine - Mathematics


The aim of this project is to learn from the architecture and function of nature so as to improve man-made processes. The members of the project team have skills in non-equilibrium thermodynamics, statistical physics, biology, chemical engineering and computational chemistry on the macroscopic scale as well as the molecular scale. The interdisciplinary team intends to study the available energy in natural systems, how it is used and what the efficiency of the conversion depends on. We are planning to study biological systems (lungs, kidneys, molecular motors) and chemical process equipments (reactors, heat exchangers, separation equipments).

End Report

Nature-inspired chemical process design means that knowledge gained from studies of nature is transported, or converted, into designs of chemical process units. The year at the Centre for Advanced Study was thus devoted to both issues.

As a natural process of energy conversion, we chose to study the structure and function of the Ca-ATPase from sarcoplasmic reticulum. This is an ion pump in nature, which runs on chemical energy, and converts this to osmotic energy. The man-made power producing unit of interest, was the polymer electrolyte fuel cell. This cell burns fuel in oxygen to create electrical energy. The human lung was studied as an efficient natural flow system for oxygen. Both systems were studied from a molecular as well as an overall performance level.

Common to both problems is the issue of energy conversion, and in particular the dissipation (loss) of energy in the process. Biological systems perform often rather efficiently, and we wanted to know why and how this is so in our examples. On the other hand, we also set out to use information on dissipated energy, to help increase the efficiency of the fuel cell.

The biological pump was studied from three perspectives. Colleagues in quantum mechanics studied the structure at the binding sites. The people doing molecular dynamics simulation studied transport of heat and ions. The different parts were tied together by a non-equilibrium thermodynamic theory, investigated by yet some other members.

Likewise, we studied molecular processes in the fuel cell, in particular the gas access to the electrodes. A main effort went in to optimize the structure of the catalyst layer in the cell. All subgroups devoted time to method developments.

The efforts during the year led to the following breakthroughs:

  • New methods in quantum mechanics were developed, which can improve the famous density functional theory, now in use.
  • A new formulation of active transport was developed, that include an explanation of thermogenesis.
  • First evidence was found for water polarization in a temperature gradient.
  • A first model of the breathing of the reindeer was set up.
  • The performance of the human lung was understood in terms of its structure and energy dissipation.
  • A solution was found for the structure of the optimal catalyst in the fuel cell.
  • A relation was proven between the heat of transfer and the enthalpy.
  • In addition, several other interesting new findings are now being reported, making us very happy with the stay. During the year, we also celebrated that:
  • Fernando Bresme was awarded the McBain Medal in Colloid and Interface Science, Royal Society of Chemistry/SCI.
  • The work of Bresme F., Lervik A., Bedeaux D. and Kjelstrup S. in Phys. Rev. Lett., 101, 020602 (2008), was selected to appear in the July 15, 2008 issue of Virtual Journal of Biological Physics Research. It also featured in the American Physical Society at http://physics.aps.org/synopsis-for/10.1103/PhysRevLett.101.020602.
  • The work of I. G. Cuesta, J. Sánchez Marín, T. B. Pedersen, H. Koch, and A. Sánchez de Merás, in Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 10 (2008) 361, was chosen as Cover Article of issue 3, 21 January 2008.

The invitation to CAS gave a unique opportunity to invite collaborators and make a concentrated efforts for a new line of research. The efforts were rewarding. It is easy to see that the group and its members will benefit in various ways. The list of breakthroughs and awards already mentioned, speaks for itself.

Collaborative efforts will certainly be kept up, to pursue the problems that we started to study at CAS. These are of course not solved in one year. Many new questions arise and can benefit from improved methods, which are now available.

Partners will also group for new endeavours. For instance, there are now applications for funding to EU, to allow Spanish co-workers come to NTNU. We have applied to the Research Council of Norway for funding to look at energy efficiency in arctic animals, as well as in industrial processes. Collaborators in US, Canada and Great Britain have strongly supported this application.

We have in this year made the foundation for future work, and also established new connections that could turn into very fruitful collaborations in the future.


  • Barragan, Daniel
    Associate Professor National University of Colombia 2007/2008
  • Bedeaux, Dick
    Professor Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) 2007/2008
  • Boman, Linus
    Ph. D. Candidate Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) 2007/2008
  • Bresme, Fernando
    Dr. Imperial College London 2007/2008
  • Coppens, Marc-Olivier
    Professor Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 2007/2008
  • Cuesta, Inmaculada García
    Research Fellow University of Valencia 2007/2008
  • Gheorghiu, Stefan
    Senior Researcher Center for Complexity Studies 2007/2008
  • Inzoli, Isabella
    Ph. D. Candidate Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) 2007/2008
  • Koch, Henrik
    Professor Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) 2007/2008
  • Pfeifer, Peter Martin
    Professor University of Missouri 2007/2008
  • Pharoah, Jon George
    Assistant Professor Queen's University at Kingston 2007/2008
  • Rubi, Miguel
    Professor University of Barcelona 2007/2008
  • Simon, Jean-Marc
    Associate Professor Univeristy of Bourgogne 2007/2008
  • Sugita, Yuji
    Associate Chief Scientist Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) 2007/2008
  • Sánchez de Merás, Alfredo Manuel Jorge
    Associate Professor University of Valencia 2007/2008


Group leader

  • Signe Kjelstrup

    Title Professor Institution Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Year at CAS 2007/2008