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Antwerp: Everything Else is Just the Parking Lot

If you had asked me about cities in Belgium a week ago, the first one that would have come to my mind would have definitely been Brussels. When I visited Metrohm Belgium in Antwerp last week, however, I learned that the locals have a slightly different perspective: a popular saying is that there’s only Antwerp in Belgium—the rest of the country is just the parking lot. I can’t comment on that because I didn’t get to see any other cities in Belgium (our colleagues weren’t going to show me the parking lot when we had just two days … duh). 

Antwerp2With a group of Metrohmers, we went on a city tour that took us to different districts of Antwerp and really showed the diversity that the city has to offer. The south used to be the rich part where mainly French-speaking people lived. The mail slots on old doors labeled in French with the word «lettres» (letters) still testifies to its past. In the northern part of the city, the label «brieven» attests the Flemish past of the area. Today, Antwerp is one of the most multi-cultural cities in Europe, which is reflected among others by the variety in the restaurant landscape. For our dinner the night before, for instance, Saskia had selected a French-Japanese fusion restaurant situated in an old Belgian vault cellar—a perfect mix to show off the city’s diversity.

Fries: A Way of Life

During our tour we grabbed a very Belgian lunch in the city center: fries. There’s probably no other place in the world where fries are taken as seriously as in Belgium. In most places, fries are a side order; here, they’re a main and you’ll find them in all conceivable varieties: simple—pure or with mayonnaise or ketchup—or elaborate with toppings ranging from beef stew to thai chicken.

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The University of Antwerp

Of course we didn’t only eat while I was in Antwerp. Jeroen Lybaert, product manager electrochemistry at Metrohm Belgium, took me to see customers at the University of Antwerp: the research group of Professor Karolien De Wael. This group is not just a customer for Jeroen, but part of his own history: Jeroen did his Ph.D. research in this same group. Metrohm Belgium also sponsors a conference on bio-electrochemistry organized by the group, which takes place every year in August, the SMOBE (if you’re interested in this topic, you can register for this year’s edition till May 31st).

Liselotte_Karolien_Jeroen

Liselotte, Karolien, and Jeroen in the lab at the University of Antwerp

Liselotte Neven, who started her doctoral research in Karolien’s group in January this year, introduced us to her work. She is researching the analysis of phenolic compounds by electrochemical methods. Phenolic compounds are used, for example, as antibiotics, pesticides, and plasticizers (most famously bisphenol A, which has been making headlines in recent years for its hormonal activity). The current analysis methods for such compounds leave much to be desired in terms of specificity, precision, and practical aspects of their use. Liselotte is therefore hoping to develop an electrochemical method that can overcome these challenges.

Liselotte

By oxidizing the compounds of interest at an electrode, which yields products that are electrochemically detectable. What is special is that she can control the oxidation reaction with little effort: she produces the oxidizing agent, singlet oxigen, right on spot using a laser. So by turning the laser on or off, she can start or stop the reaction, respectively. To achieve this, she adds a photosensitizer to the sample, which is a substance that can transfer the energy from the light to oxygen molecules in the surrounding air and thereby create singlet oxygen when illuminated by the laser. To detect the products of the oxidation, Liselotte uses a Metrohm DropSens potentiostat with a screenprinted electrode.

«We buy Metrohm instruments whenever it’s possible», says Karolien. «They are very rugged and that’s important, in particular in teaching labs where students use them who are not yet experienced in handling chemical analysis instruments. Metrohm instruments may be a little more expensive than other instruments, but the difference pays off, because the Metrohm instruments withstand the sometimes rough handling.»

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