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Margarida COSTA GOMES : thermodynamics and elegance

Margarida Costa Gomes, lauréate IDEXLYON Fellowships - © Vincent Moncorgé
Margarida Costa Gomes, lauréate IDEXLYON Fellowships - © Vincent Moncorgé
Combining modeling, experimental sciences and theoretical chemistry, Margarida Costa Gomes’ work is shaping the future of industrial processes and elegantly responds to the needs of sustainable development.

One can enter the sciences with a taste for aesthetics. Margarida Costa Gomes’ journey is proof of this. « I saw beauty within industrial architecture... I was intrigued by the fact that you can build something so complex from simple bricks.», This, she explains, is why she became interested in chemistry at high school, and then went on to study chemical engineering at the prestigious Universidade Técnica de Lisboa (Technical University of Lisbon). This interest in how things are assembled and their properties led her to study at another famous European engineering school, the Imperial College of London , after completing her thesis. More recently, she was accepted by the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Every step of the way, she’s had encounters with thermodynamics.

« The physical theory of thermodynamics dates back to the 19th century. Albert Einstein described it as a physical theory whose basic concepts could never be questioned », she says with amusement as she introduces her field of study. Thermodynamics still faces very modern challenges. At the dawn of the 21st century, the field of thermodynamics is essential for manufactuers seeking to optimize their processes and develop eco-friendly chemistry, which promises to limit the energy consumption and pollution associated with chemistry.

At the same time, advances in computer modeling have enabled us to look at thermodynamics from a new angle, on a new scale: from a molecular perspective. Margarida then viewed chemical processes from three complementary perspectives: experimental macromolecular thermodynamics, theoretical thermodynamics and modeling. Combining these lines of research allows us to understand how molecules interact during chemical processes. She used this idea to support her application for the CNRS, where she was accepted on her very first attempt in 1998, to join the Université Clermont Auvergne in Clermont-Ferrand, which was then home to one of the most advanced groups in the field.

Her success was certainly not due to chance. It was clear from the start that Margarida Costa Gomes refused to be negligent. Well dressed with impeccable French (even if her children say otherwise), with an elegantly decorated office and a professional and welcoming laboratory, it is clear that this Franco-Portuguese scientist takes the utmost care in everything she does.

This quality, which is of great value in experimental sciences, has undoubtedly contributed to her success. She received a bronze medal from the CNRS for her work in 2003. « I thought it was a spam e-mail at first », she recalls. Ever so humble. The French institution recognizes her forward-looking and committed approach.
The physical theory of thermodynamics dates back to the 19th century. Albert Einstein described it as a physical theory whose basic concepts could never be questioned.
After all, to reinvent chemistry, we need new materials and, in particular, new solvents. And that is exactly what Margarida Costa Gomes is working on. « I started working on liquids that are made up only of ions and that do not evaporate ». With their large ions, these “ionic liquids” are strange chemical objects whose characteristics are of great interest for industrial applications. « They can be specially formulated, mixing different positive and negative ions to change their properties », explains the chemist. They also make it possible to carry out complex chemical operations under mild conditions. « For example, wood can be dissolved and processed at moderate temperatures without the need for catalysts, acids or other harmful substances. »

Molecular thermodynamics is a powerful basic research tool for explaining the properties of these liquids. And Margarida’s studies gave her the opportunity to examine them. She uses her construction skills from her engineering background and builds her own experimental machines to test her theories. She works in close collaboration with a glass workshop, where she produces custom-made systems that allow her to tap into the properties of ionic liquids and to study how they behave under different conditions.

Thanks to the IDEXLYON Fellowships and her move to the ENS de Lyon, she can now use her expertise in a world-class chemical research facility. This new venture has given her the opportunity to work on a type of ionic liquid that is still relatively new: porous liquids, whose ions are organized in a network to form pores. They are exceptionally good solvents, especially when it comes to dissolving gases such as carbon dioxide or methane, which are known to increase the greenhouse effect when released into the atmosphere, but also when it comes to recycling complex textiles such as Gore-Tex®.

Margarida’s work is leading the way towards a more environmentally friendly industrial environment. Her work can be used to address a number of sensitive and global issues. She has a taste for finding practical solutions to difficult problems: « For me, it’s about embracing different cultures... having the desire to incorporate your work into society, to address societal issues. ». Rather elegant, don’t you think?

Written by Agnès Vernet, for the Université de Lyon | May 2020