Dr. Willian Menezes, chemist and project manager at Arva AG, talks about what holds the world together, his initial skepticism about Arva’s technology and freedom in Berlin.
A Brazilian national does his doctorate in chemistry at the Bremen University and is now working in Berlin at a Swiss company for environmental technology. Could you explain to us how it came to this?
It’s fairly simple but will take a while [laughs]. I was born and raised in Rio and, after finishing school, took up my studies in chemistry in Curitiba, almost 1000 kilometers south of Rio. I was twenty back then. I could have had studied in Rio but wanted to get to know another city and be independent, leave home. Curitiba was a cultural shock for me at first — the absolute opposite of Rio. In southern Brazil, people are much less open, and it is much colder there. So, just the opposite of Germany, where they say people in the North are more withdrawn than in the South, where it is warmer as well.
Even as a child, I was fascinated by scientific discoveries, for example, when I saw reports on television about new technologies. Since then I too wanted to do research and collaborate on new findings and do something for society. At school I initially did not like chemistry at all, but at some point, two years before I finished school, I had a great teacher and suddenly wanted to understand what we and the world are made of.
Did your studies give you the answers you hoped for?
At the beginning of university, I was disappointed. I assumed that it would all be about chemistry now, and I would soon be making breakthrough discoveries in the laboratory [laughs]. My first year course plan consisted of 80% math and physics. One has to survive it. After that, the ratio was reversed, and I was really excited — from experiments in the lab as well as organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry.
A short appeal for your subject please: Why should every one of us be concerned with chemistry ?
In the end, everything that surrounds us is chemistry. Everything is made up of molecules and atoms: what we eat, breath, the world around us. The periodic system of chemical elements is the foundation of everything. The other sciences deal with it, too, but chemistry’s contribution to our understanding of it is fundamental. I can warmly recommend chemistry to anyone who wants to know what holds the world together at its core.
What brought you then to Germany?
Following bachelor and masters examinations in Brazil, I was determined to gain some experience abroad and work in the industry afterwards. The history of chemical science is highly influenced by German researchers and, of course, by the major German chemical concerns BASF and Bayer. Considering post-graduation job prospects, it seemed sensible for me to come here. Once here, I contacted Bremen University, because of the exciting topics their Institute for Applied and Physical Chemistry deals with, and applied for a DAAD fellowship. After being accepted, I first went to Göttingen to do a German course at the Goethe Institute. Fours years later, in Bremen, I got my doctorate with a thesis on nanocatalysts for cars. So pretty close to industrial application.
What came after graduation?
As planned, I wanted to move as directly as possible into the industry. I got the chance to get to know the economic side of applied chemistry as a project and product manager for the Swiss chemical company Clariant. We modelled the complete life cycle of a product. I was involved in mining products that improved the lixiviation of ore from soil.
When you saw the job advertisement and looked into the company, what appealed to you?
The responsibilities seemed familiar to me, because here too I am engaging at the interface between research and market and would like to make our procedure economically attractive to the client. To a certain extent I have changed sides, from the extraction of mineral resources, which is often accompanied by an environmental impact, to the green side, where pollution is eliminated again. Besides, Berlin has always fascinated me as a city and a place to live.
Your impression of the first encounter with the Berlin team?
Meeting the colleagues confirmed my positive first impression: a very personal atmosphere, a lot of know-how and an extremely exciting product with huge market potential. The “green” aspect of the technology is just as important to me as it is to the team. I was concerned with oxidation procedures for soil and water remediation in my masters thesis and have been fascinated by the Arvox procedure from the outset.
From your point of view, what is special about the oxidation product that Arva offers?
Like my colleagues, who developed the procedure, I find it fascinating and unexpected to create the superoxidation reaction, which degrades nearly all hydrocarbons, in the way it is achieved. And very efficiently, as laboratory and field trials confirm; the degradation rates are outstanding. In addition, we have no harmful byproducts, as is the case with almost every other chemical treatment. The components used are inexpensive. The application is very flexible, because it does not require high temperatures or special conditions and is thus ideal for on-site application, that is, it can be applied in situ. I will admit, in the beginning I was sceptical. But now, after a month in the company, much reading and an intense week in the laboratory, I am completely convinced that the procedure works as promised. We clearly have a competitive advantage due to the patent. Nevertheless, we have a lot to do to develop standards and perfect the practical application for the various markets and contaminations in detail. All in all, we are on a very good path.
What exactly is your job? What does the “Project Manager Cleaning Technologies” do?
I am the intermediary between scientific theory and practical implementation. My current task is to close the gap as it stands between laboratory and client projects. This includes the coordination of the current pilot projects. Which technology do we need for what kind of contamination? Are the contaminations superficial, deep in the soil or on the track? How can we increase the procedure’s efficiency? We have had a great deal of experience in innumerable laboratory trials with various scenarios, different types of soil, contaminants, climatic and vegetative conditions. In addition, we have gained experience with numerous projects, especially in oil production. It is now about transferring this knowledge into marketable products and services. We are working nonstop on this. I see very good chances for successful remediation projects in 2017.
Back to the beginning of our conversation: What is better in Berlin than in Rio? What do you miss?
Berlin means freedom. That sounds pathetic, but that is how I perceive it. The city is open and cosmopolitan and is becoming increasingly international. Even if people here always associate Rio with lust for life and eternal Mardi Gras, for someone who lives there, it seems much more narrow-minded and conformist than you would think. Professionally, I see more potential here than in my home country. And especially given a company like Arva, which has the potential I have described. As such, the mix here is the best of different worlds.
What do I miss? No question about it: the weather in Rio, the ocean and the beach. And, of course, my family and friends. That makes the visits home all the more intense. And likewise the return to Berlin, which I just as quickly miss when in Rio…