Working Towards a Circular Carbon Economy in Boston

Kevin De Ras was a Belgian 2023-2024 Fulbright Visiting Student Researcher in Engineering at MIT. He is a chemical engineering PhD candidate in his final year at the Laboratory for Chemical Technology of Ghent University. His research focuses on the transition toward a circular carbon economy by simulation of free radical chemistry processes (pyrolysis and oxidation) based on quantum chemistry. Experimental and detailed kinetic modeling work is combined to obtain new fundamental insights into alternative fuels, plastic waste recycling, etc. He already received several awards for his work including the research award at the Student Research Conference (2017) for his bachelor’s thesis and the Solvay Award (2019) for his master’s thesis.

Q: “Can you briefly describe your grant project?”

Using plastic waste as chemical feedstock for commodity plastics (PE, PP, PET, PS, PVC, etc.) eliminates the crude oil dependency and enables the transition toward the desired circular economy. Chemical recycling of plastics, however, still poses several challenges to the scientific community due to a lack of knowledge. Via combined experimental and kinetic modeling work, I want to obtain new insight into the chemical decomposition of plastic waste via supercritical water pyrolysis. To do so, experiments were performed using the unique infrastructure of the Green group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, I tried to gain more insight into the fundamental chemistry of the process by developing kinetic models that describe the chemical reactions on the molecular scale. These kinetic models are essential to develop an industrial process and to optimize the reaction conditions.

Q: “What have you accomplished during your time in the USA? What can you tell us about the initial outcomes of your program?”

During my 5-months research stay, I was able to enlarge my academic network with experts in the field and learned a lot about the use of artificial intelligence for chemical engineering purposes. In particular for my project, I performed several sets of experiments for thermal decomposition of polyethylene and polypropylene with supercritical water in gold tube reactors. Moreover, I helped in the development of kinetic models for polymers and interacted in other kinetic modeling projects of the Green group. The initial objectives of this research stay were as such achieved.


Q: “Can you describe a typical day in your life in the USA?”

A typical working day in the USA started with a Teams meeting with my colleagues from Ghent University. Then I had a walk along the Charles river with a great view of the skyline of Boston to get from my lodging to the ChemE department of MIT. Once I arrived in the laboratory, I spent most of my time in the laboratory preparing an experimental run, to open the reactor or to perform analysis of the reaction products. In addition, I interacted with fellow colleagues about other reaction engineering projects, attended (sub)group meetings, or took a small break to get a coffee or walk around the campus. In the evening, there were plenty of activities in Boston. I attended several sports games, met other Belgian people or hung out with American friends.

Q: “What has been your favorite “discovery” in the USA?”

I like the fact that in the USA, a significant part of social life and activities proceed up and around the university campus, such as sporting clubs, fitness, student associations, social gatherings, protests, etc.


Q: “What misconceptions do you think other Belgians have about the USA? What do you know now about the USA that you wish everyone knew?”

Belgians sometimes see America as the wild West as the USA appears mostly negative in the news. However, the USA is so large that generalizing is not applicable and the East coast is very different compared to the West coast.

Q: “What advice would you give to someone who is considering applying to the Fulbright Program?”

The Fulbright Program is the perfect opportunity to obtain personal enrichment in independence, while working within top-notch American universities. It is a unique chance to live for a longer period in the USA and to meet new people. I met several Belgian friends due to the local Belgian society that I will keep contact with. Moreover, you become a Fulbright alumni and get invited to several events which enable you to enlarge your personal network even further after the program has been finished. I therefore strongly recommend everyone that considers applying to take your time to write a good proposal and to ultimately submit an application.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.