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Michael Hummel: Sustainable and renewable materials will replace oil-based products

Researchers need to be team players, says Professor of Biopolymer Chemistry and Engineering.
Michael Hummel, kuva: Jaakko Kahilaniemi
Photo: Jaakko Kahilaniemi / Aalto University

Professor Michael Hummel, what do you research and why?

My research area is Biopolymer Chemistry and Engineering. Biopolymers are large molecules produced by living organisms, for instance, carbohydrates like cellulose and polypeptides such as proteins. They are inherently renewable and biodegradable. Humankind has always known to make use of―and place value in―them, but during the past century, we have become more and more dependent on synthetic polymers, such as plastics.

As we are becoming increasingly aware of all the problems that synthetic, oil-based and often non-degradable polymers cause, we need to shift back to the use of natural materials. In my research, I strive for a better understanding of the properties and structure of biopolymers from various sources in order to turn them into sustainable products. This requires development and use of green chemistry and energy-saving technologies.

How did you become a researcher?

That is difficult to say. I think I had a good chemistry teacher in high school, who was able to spark my interest in natural sciences. I was not really planning to become a chemist, but after high school graduation, I thought I would give it a go. That was almost 20 years ago and I have never regretted the decision.

What have been the highlights of your career?

Working as a researcher has been an incredible journey with a lot of great moments and positive experiences. But looking back, I would say there have been three events that stand out for me. I have been working on the Ioncell process since I came to Finland in 2009. This is a process that uses a special solvent to turn wood-cellulose into textile fibers for garments and clothes. It took us four years and hundreds of―sometimes very frustrating―mistrials to find the right solvent. I remember that day in March 2013, when we finally had the breakthrough.

The second highlight was in summer 2016, when I received an email that my ERC application had been successful. And the most recent highlight was certainly my appointment as professor at Aalto University.

What is required from a researcher?

I want to say passion, since you have to be passionate about your research. But that is needed for basically any profession. Maybe a researcher has to be a bit nerdy ― with that I mean that he or she finds joy and satisfaction in even the smallest details. It is important to enjoy the tiny steps and incremental progress when conducting research and staying enthusiastic even when you cannot yet see the full picture.

Another very important quality of a researcher nowadays is being a team player and enjoying working with peers. Gone are the days when scientists were lonely wolves hiding for months in their laboratories until they had their ‘Eureka!’ moment. Research is nowadays highly interdisciplinary and the problems we are trying to solve require experts from many different disciplines.

What do you expect from the future?

Obviously, I hope that I can contribute to the scientific community and society with something impactful. I really want to develop new solutions and sustainable materials that can replace products currently made from non-renewable and non-degradable substances.

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