Philippe Dubois: under the sign of green chemistry

An advocate of green, responsible chemistry, Professor Philippe Dubois is an internationally renowned researcher in chemistry and materials science, notably for his cutting-edge research into bioplastics. These innovative processes have led to numerous patented applications in industry, highlighting the essential role of chemistry in the ecological transition. As President and Rector of theUniversity of Mons (UMons), located in French-speaking Belgium, he attaches as much importance to the international reputation of his institution as to the well-being of its students, teachers and researchers. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Montpellier on January 31, 2024.

Looking back over the career of Belgian researcher Philippe Dubois, the figures speak for themselves: over 800 peer-reviewed scientific publications, 76 patents (nearly a quarter of which have led to the industrialization of innovative products and processes) and numerous awards (see box below). As Sébastien Clément, Director of the Chemistry Department at the Montpellier Faculty of Science and sponsor of his honorary doctorate, points out, " Philippe Dubois is an eminent researcher whose academic career has been marked by an unwavering passion for science and innovation ".

And that's putting it mildly. Born in Charleroi in 1965, from a modest working-class background (his father was a miner, his mother a housewife), Philippe Dubois was soon distinguished by an undeniable appetite for scientific questions, a discipline in which he excelled. After completing a Master's degree in organic chemistry at the Facultés universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur, he went on to write a doctoral thesis in polymer chemistry entitled "Ingénierie moléculaire de matériaux biocompatibles et biodégradables par ouverture de cycle des lactones et lactides" (Molecular engineering of biocompatible and biodegradable materials by ring-opening of lactones and lactides), which he obtained with the congratulations of the jury at the University of Liège. This work led to the filing of his first patent in 1989 and several scientific publications. The study of biocompatible and biodegradable polymers was already central to his work. And it was to remain so. Following a first industrial post-doc at Dow Chemicals in Holland, he became a research fellow, then a qualified FNRS (Fonds national de la recherche scientifique) researcher at the University of Liège. In 1994, he did a second post-doc in chemical engineering of bio-based polymer materials at Michigan State University in the USA. He also filed his second patent.

At the crossroads of synthetic chemistry and materials engineering

In 1997, Philippe Dubois joined theUniversité de Mons-Hainaut (which merged to become the Université de Mons in 2009) as a specialist in macromolecular synthesis chemistry, where he founded the Service des matériaux polymères et composites (SMPC) as part of the Materia Nova cluster of excellence. He was appointed professor (1999) and then full professor (2003), teaching organic chemistry, macromolecular chemistry and industrial chemistry. Thanks to his expertise, he is a guest professor at numerous institutions in Belgium and around the world (USA, China, Saudi Arabia...). The Belgian researcher is an advocate of green chemistry, committed to the ecological transition through pioneering interdisciplinary research at the crossroads of synthetic chemistry and materials engineering.

Plastics are omnipresent in our lives, whether in the automotive, construction, public works or packaging industries, with over 400 million tonnes produced worldwide every year," explains Sébastien Clément. In order to improve the ecological footprint of these plastics, Philippe Dubois was one of the first in Europe to demonstrate the potential of local and renewable bioresources for the production of plastics, thus freeing us from the need to use oil as a raw material ". Among the many innovations that have emerged thanks to the work of the Belgian scientist's teams, one major discovery is particularly noteworthy. " An initial process for the continuous production of polylactic acid (PLA), the most industrialized biosourced and biodegradable plastic today, was made possible by exploiting a catalytic system for reactive exclusion patented by Professor Philippe Dubois's team ", adds the director of the Chemistry Department at Montpellier's Faculty of Science. Other research, another industrial application: the very first anti-biofouling paint devoid of any bactericide to prevent the proliferation of marine organisms on boat hulls, leading to massive fuel savings while respecting the marine environment. Philippe Dubois is also working on the recyclability of bio-based polymers using enzymology, with the aim of drastically reducing the amount of waste produced.

Promoting research and the transition of knowledge

In parallel with his research at the cutting edge of science, Philippe Dubois is also a committed member of the administration of theUniversity of Mons. Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Science (2002-2005), Chairman of the Chemistry Department (2003-2007), he was also advisor to the Rector on scientific research (2006-2009). At the same time, he federated polymer research through the creation of the Center for Innovation and Research in Polymer Materials (CIRMAP) in 2007 (which he directed until 2016), while also serving as co-president of the Institute for Research in Materials Science and Engineering (2012-2016). Scientific Director of the Materia Nova asbl research center, which he helped to set up, and aware of the importance of links between research, innovation and industry, Philippe Dubois took part in setting up the spin-off GATE2 S.A., a platform for valorizing the technologies and processes developed and patented by Materia Nova. After a sabbatical year during which he founded the cutting-edge National Composite Center (affiliated to LIST) in Luxembourg, he was elected Rector-President of theUniversity of Mons in 2018 (he had previously been Vice-Rector for Research), then re-elected for a further four years in 2022.

Strong collaborative ties

For Philippe Dubois, this role is an opportunity to place "the student at the heart of his concerns ", as he puts it. And that's no empty phrase. He's someone who's very committed to teaching in his role as rector," says Sébastien Clément. The researcher from Montpellier knows all about it. "Philippe Dubois has been a mentor to a whole generation of scientists, sharing his knowledge and advice with passion and always with a smile. I was one of the researchers he mentored during his career. Our paths crossed a little over 15 years ago during my post-doctoral internship. His first words were: 'Settle in quietly, get your bearings, and we'll talk about the project later'. These words perfectly illustrate his human qualities and his desire to provide a fulfilling working environment for his researchers, conducive to the success of his laboratory. "

This first shared professional experience led to further collaborations once Sébastien Clément was recruited by the University of Montpellier in 2009. Together, they supervised two cotutelle theses and helped forge strong research and teaching links between the two universities. With an Erasmus+ agreement to be signed between the Mons and Montpellier Faculties of Science in 2023, new joint projects are already being considered. Despite its strong territorial roots, Philippe Dubois has not lost sight of the importance of promoting his university internationally, which is why he is President of the EUNICE European University. Another point in common between theUniversity of Mons and the University of Montpellier is the latter's strong involvement in theCHARM-EU European University. Proof that research and teaching are solid foundations on which to build a sustainable and committed future together.  

The price of science

Considered one of Belgium's most influential scientists, Philippe Dubois has received numerous awards throughout his career, including the prestigious FNRS Five-Year Prize in Applied Exact Sciences 2011-2015 awarded by King Philippe of Belgium in person. A member of the Royal Academy of Belgium and the European Academy of Sciences, he is ranked 18th among the world's top 100 materials scientists 2000-2010 by Thomson-Reuters and in Stanford University's Top 2% World Scientists 2020. Rector-President of theUniversity of Mons, he is Scientific Director of the Materia Nova research center, Honorary Qualified Researcher at the FNRS, Adjunct Professor at the University of Liège and Visiting Professor at the University of Namur, as well as in numerous higher education establishments abroad (USA, China, France, Luxembourg...).