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Marc-Olivier Coppens

University College London

Coppens_Bild_webMarc-Olivier COPPENS is Ramsay Memorial Chair and Head of Department of Chemical Engineering at UCL, since 2012, after academic posts at Rensselaer, USA, and TU Delft, Netherlands (1998-2006), where he became Professor in 2001, and Chair in Physical Chemistry and Molecular Thermodynamics in 2003. He holds chemical engineering degrees (1993; PhD 1996) from Ghent University, Belgium, was visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and postdoctoral fellow at Yale and UC Berkeley. In 2013, he founded the Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering at UCL, which was granted a £5M EPSRC (UK’s NSF) “Frontier Engineering” Award. He is most recognised for pioneering work on nature-inspired chemical engineering: learning from fundamental mechanisms behind desirable traits in nature to develop creative and effective solutions to engineering challenges. He has over 150 peer-reviewed scientific publications and delivered more than 50 named lectures, invited plenary and keynote lectures at international conferences. He won several international awards, most recently the AIChE Particle Technology Forum’s PSRI Lectureship Award in Fluidization (2017). He also received Rensselaer’s School of Engineering Education Innovation Award (2012). He is Fellow of AIChE (2016) and IChemE (2014), Qiushi Professor at Zhejiang University (2017) and elected corresponding member of the Saxon Academy of Sciences, Germany (2018). He is an Editor-in-Chief of Chemical & Engineering Processing: Process Intensification, and serves on several Editorial Boards, including Powder Technology, KONA and RSC Molecular Systems Design & Engineering.

Nature-Inspired Chemical Engineering, a Transformative Methodology for Innovation


Some of our greatest challenges involve energy, water, the environment, dwindling resources, sustainable manufacturing, and healthy ageing. These global challenges become increasingly urgent. To approach them, chemical engineers are well equipped with the basic tools: balances, systems modeling, thermodynamics, kinetics and transport phenomena. Nevertheless, how these tools are employed in process and product design requires rethinking. Tackling Grand Challenges requires step-changes through transformative approaches and lateral thinking across disciplines, beyond incremental variations on traditional designs.

Nature is replete with well-integrated, “intensified” systems, optimized over the eons, to satisfy stringent constraints for survival by scalable processes with emergent properties. We propose to take nature as a source of inspiration, leveraging fundamental mechanisms underpinning desirable properties (like scalability, resilience or efficiency) and applying these to engineering designs, with suitable adaptations to satisfy the different contexts of technology and nature. We call this approach Nature-Inspired Chemical Engineering (NICE).

The NICE approach is thematic, structured around ubiquitous mechanisms in nature, such as: hierarchical transport networks, force balancing, and dynamic self-organization. It is also systematic, recognizing a suitable concept (e.g., fractal scaling within a certain range), then applying it to a design (such as a uniform, scalable fluid distributor) that supports implementation within the context of an application (such as fluidization). Because it is systematic, NICE is versatile, allowing for application of validated principles to new problems (for example, from fluidization to fuel cells).

I will give examples of how the NICE methodology is applied to the intensification of multiphase reactor operation and (heterogeneous, bio- and electro-)catalytic processes, membrane separations, and functional materials for biomedical applications. We hope that the NICE approach may become a driver for innovation in design, out-of-the-box thinking, and guide solutions to some of our engineering Grand Challenges.


M.-O. Coppens, 2012, A nature-inspired approach to reactor and catalysis engineering. Curr. Op. Chem. Eng. 1, 281-289.

P. Trogadas, J.I.S. Cho, T.P. Neville, J. Marquis, B. Wu, D.J.L. Brett and M.-O. Coppens, 2018, A lung-inspired approach to scalable and robust fuel cell design. Energy & Env. Sci. 11, 136.

M.-O. Coppens and G. Ye, 2018, Nature inspired optimization of transport in porous media. In Diffusive Spreading in Nature, Technology and Society (A. Bunde, J. Caro, J. Kärger and G. Vogl, ed.), Springer.