Meet our SIM² KU Leuven colleague: Dr. Thomas Abo Atia

As of August 1, 2020, Thomas Abo Atia will start as a new postdoc at the SOLVOMET Group (Department of Chemistry) headed by Prof. Koen Binnemans. His work will focus on the development of novel, eco-friendly hydrometallurgical extraction, recovery and recycling processes. Find out more about his work and research background in this latest SIM² KU Leuven interview. (Leuven, 17/7/2020)

How did you become a postdoctoral researcher in Leuven?

I arrived in Belgium three years ago for a postdoc position at Flemish Institute for Technological Research, VITO. In this time, I discovered a long-standing Belgian tradition in mining and metallurgy, as well as its advanced chemical sector, which stimulate research, innovation, and development, in a highly appreciable way.

In the context of common projects, I met several members of the SOLVOMET group of SIM² KU Leuven and, at the end of my previous contract, I had the opportunity to join this group. Aware of the excellent research undertaken by the group in the field of hydro- and solvometallurgy, I would not have missed the opportunity to work in such stimulating environment.

What are the main topics you have been and are currently working on?

Mainly, the topics I worked on were related to the metallurgical processes. My previous activities concerned advanced hydrometallurgical processes, mainly assisted by microwave heating, for metal extraction from end-of-life products and mining residues, whereas my PhD and the working experiences in the private sector focused on the development of innovative processes for the recycling of batteries and photovoltaic panels.

My research topics varied significantly, as in the metallurgical field and WEEE (Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment) recycling, different skills, embracing distinct scientific areas, are needed. As a student, I was fascinated by inorganic synthesis, attending advanced courses in the production of nano- and micro- particles and their dedicated characterisation, which resulted extremely important to obtain valuable products from waste streams. Concurrently, I expanded my research interests to industrial processes, physical and chemical separation and purification, process scale-up, as well as characterisation and analytical chemistry, thermal treatments, electrochemistry, battery production.

What attracts you in your research?

Ever since, the extremely diversified features of metals and their end-less applications in the human life, triggered my curiosity to deepen the study on their chemical and physical properties. Currently, the possible shortage of base and rare metals in the near future is driving my research interests, which focuses on a more sustainable exploitation, use, and recycling of these fundamental elements (cf. Research Line 3 within SIM² KU Leuven).

If you had a time machine, what point in the past or future would you visit and why?

I am passionate about history and I would probably jump in as much as possible ages since life started on Earth, to witness the fundamental steps of development of today’s world. I would certainly visit the most advanced cultures of the ancient world, such as the great empires of China, Persia, Hellenic, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan, etc. However, I strongly believe I could not stand such tough life for so long, without the present comforts.

I am also very curious about visiting the future though, to see how humanity will cope with pollution, climate change, resource depletion, and so on, and if we, as human beings, will be able to thrive in a sustainable way, respecting the only hospitable planet we have so far.

If you had plenty of time, what would you do?

Indeed, I would love to travel to as many destinations as possible on Earth, but not purely as a traveler, but as a worker, to catch the various aspects of a real life in different parts of the world. In the meantime, I would not mind tasting all the typical food around the globe.

I would also like to study, and inform myself more, about astrophysics and particle physics, as I am attracted by the unrevealed mysteries of the universe.

What is the strangest talent you have?

Maybe it does not count as a strange talent…but I like cooking. I cannot consider myself as a chef or even close, but I was always capable to prepare nice dinners and good food, even when the fridge was desert, using a bit of fantasy and adaptation. This skill was definitely appreciated by my friends, and by flat mates when I was a student, although afterwards, I was continually asked to cook.

Thank you for this interview. We wish you all the best in your research endeavours.


Biography Thomas Abo Atia. Thomas Abo Atia has recently joined the SOLVOMET group at KU Leuven as postdoctoral researcher. He graduated in Industrial Chemistry and obtained his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at University of Rome “La Sapienza”. After his studies and three-year experience in the WEEE (Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment) recycling sector, he moved to Belgium working on metallurgical processes at VITO (Flemish Institute for Technological Research.


Interviews with other colleagues are available here:

Want to know more about SIM² KU Leuven?

SIM² KU Leuven is the KU Leuven Institute for Sustainable Metals and Minerals (SIM² in short). SIM² is one of the four official KU Leuven Institutes that were endorsed by the KU Leuven Academic Council in November 2019. SIM² has more than 220 members, coming from a wide range of (interdisciplinary) research groups and departments at KU Leuven.

SIM²’s missions is “to develop, organise & implement problem-driven, science-deep research & future-oriented education, contributing to the environmentally friendly production & recycling of metals, minerals & engineered materials, supporting (…) a climate-friendly, circular-economy”. Read more about the new KU Leuven Institute here.

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