UGent physicist wins ‘Belgian Nobel Prize’

Professor Veronique Van Speybroeck of Ghent University has won the Francqui Prize for Exact Sciences, it was announced on Thursday. Van Speybroeck, a physicist and civil engineer, was chosen by the international jury for her pioneering work on computer modelling of catalysis processes, which has the potential to create a more sustainable industry.

Huge numbers of everyday chemical processes occur via catalysis: a substance – the catalyst – makes the chemical process run more efficiently without being lost in the process. For a long time, a trial-and-error approach was used to find the best catalysts for industrial processes. Van Speybroeck has developed computer models using quantum simulations, which can make predictions with unprecedented precision. 

These models lay the groundwork for new catalysts and nanomaterials that could, for example, capture and convert carbon dioxide into circular chemicals, store green hydrogen efficiently for transport, or detect and capture volatile harmful substances in the air.

Her research is conducted on the nano-scale and is at the intersection of physics, chemistry, bio-engineering and materials science.

"Her fundamental work is a game-changer and opens the door to future technologies for a sustainable industry"

“I enjoy exploring other domains and learning from people who are not in my field,” she says. “By being open to things you don’t know and collaborating with people from different backgrounds, we can analyse and resolve the most complex problems from various angles. When we think outside of the box, beautiful science becomes possible.”

“Most chemical processes in industry depend on catalysis. Thanks to Veronique Van Speybroeck’s pioneering work, we can meticulously understand and explain these complex processes,” said Professor Ben Feringa, president of the jury and winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2016. “Her fundamental work is a game-changer and opens the door to future technologies for a sustainable industry.”

The Francqui Prize is awarded each year to a Belgian scientist under the age of 50. It is distributed in rotation to the exact sciences, human sciences and biological and medical sciences. 

The prize is worth 250,000 euros and will be awarded by King Philippe at a ceremony later this year. Established in 1933 by the Francqui Foundation, it showcases Belgium’s contributions to the global intellectual community and is sometimes known as “the Belgian Nobel Prize” for its rich history and international character. 


Professor Veronique Van Speybroeck © PHOTO UGENT

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