In the heart of Middelburg and the Zeeland delta stands the brand new Joint Research Center Zeeland (JRCZ). On Thursday, December 15, 2022, the joint research laboratory of Zeeland's MBO, HBO and WO was officially opened after a construction period of more than two years. The combination of different types of education and hands-on practice within one lab is unique in the world on this scale. Barbara Oomen is board chair of HZ University of Applied Sciences and has lived and worked in the province for 15 years. Leo Blok started teaching engineering at HZ and is the brand-new manager of the JRCZ since the beginning of 2022. They talk about the educational concept, the possibilities within the lab and the benefits for students and companies.
Issues of our time
Starting in the second semester of the academic year, students from local educational institutions Scalda, HZ/UAS and University College Roosevelt (UCR) will work on issues related to water, energy, food and biobased materials. Specific practical questions relevant to the delta region in Zeeland. The educational concept of the JRCZ allows students, researchers, businesses and government to come together within a state-of-the-art environment with the latest equipment and technology.
"I am convinced that such an educational concept can find a rich breeding ground in this province"
Leo talks about the three pillars: education, government and entrepreneurs. It has now been six years since the Vlissinger was appointed as an engineering lecturer at HZ. Two years into his role, he was asked to join the project group around the JRCZ. At that time still an idea that was becoming more concrete: "I am a real creator and always looking for connection. From my teaching position, I got the opportunity to help develop the concept from the perspective of my engineering and technical background." Barbara has been board president since June 1, 2022, and her experience comes from education and scientific research: "I am convinced that such an educational concept can find a rich breeding ground in this province. It is an environment where innovation is paramount and where the themes of water, energy and food come into their own. Within an inspiring and innovative working environment that is filled with high quality research equipment and practical rooms, contemporary issues are investigated. The JRCZ must ensure that scientific talent is attracted to our unique piece of Zeeland. To answer contemporary issues together with knowledge institutions and industry."
Research center development
The economic and social development of Zeeland requires a good knowledge infrastructure. Where previously many young people still left the province for the Randstad, the JRCZ must ensure that education and research in our area takes off. Several reports have attracted the attention of influential parties. In 2016, the report "Zeeland in Stroomversnelling" was released, written by the Commission for Structural Strengthening and Employment Zeeland. Its purpose was to conduct an independent study of opportunities to strengthen the economic structure and employment in Zeeland. In addition to the ambition to open a high-quality research center, budget was also released for the plans. The government decided to invest in the research center after former prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende stated that education should be better aligned with the needs of the business community. Barbara says: "Over time, the idea of a research center was developed by different people. When the budget became available, we were able to strengthen our ambition and actually invest in the economy of Zeeland. In our way and with the themes that suit the province. A research center like JRCZ would not get off the ground in the Randstad. The small scale of Zeeland and its innovative strength combine to create an incubator where research and education are possible. The combination of theory and practice allows us to launch solutions in the short term that contribute to making the energy sector more sustainable. Leo adds: "As Zeeland, we are somewhat self-dependent after all. We are small compared to the industry in Brabant and the Randstad. That is why we choose to create a new hotspot with the JRCZ. From this location we can not only contribute something good, but also something general. What we research and develop here has an impact on major contemporary issues."
Getting ready for business
The tight labor market also gets a boost from the JRCZ's innovative concept. Barbara: "Our mission is to contribute to a better world. In practice we do that by, among other things, fully supporting scientific talent with a brand new research center. In addition, we make the connection with hands-no experience and students are linked to our partner network. This often creates the first opportunities in the labor market. Such as a first job, starting a start-up and overall practical experience at relevant parties. Students pull together with the industry and gain technical skills that are indispensable in the future of the energy sector. This often produces surprising results and creative solution directions proposed by the students."
"Our mission is to contribute to a better world. In practice we do that by, among other things, fully supporting scientific talent with a brand new research center."
The JRCZ and the themes of water, energy, food and the biobased economy fit the DNA of Zeeland and the times we live in. The concept appeals to young people and they see that the topics matter. Leo: "It’s not without reason that students from abroad come to study here. With the opening of the JRCZ, those numbers will go up even more. With the expertise released in the process, we will focus on strengthening and innovating the Zeeland economy. Students who previously preferred to go to the Randstad for a job or specific education can now visit their own province. Through the inspiring environment of the building combined with interesting projects and research, we want to show students that there are also many complex issues that require a solution in Zeeland. With this we want to show and let them experience that it is attractive for students to settle in Zeeland."
Increased knowledge infrastructure in Zeeland
Offshore wind is an important part of today's energy transition and also a minor at HZ. Barbara explains, "We are involved in offshore maintenance projects and are not unfamiliar with the issues surrounding offshore wind. At the JRCZ, energy is one of the themes that all involved parties are working on. As a result, Zeeland may become the most important province in the field of wind energy. Our activities and the network of the JRCZ fan out across Zeeland and beyond. Thus, anyone who wants to profile themselves in the energy sector can join our research center. Current research at the various educational institutions is revealing interesting opportunities. For example, they are investigating whether we can make plastic from algae, how to save water in beer brewing and whether fungi can form a form of insulation in construction." Leo also agrees that great things are already happening in Zeeland: "As a research teacher, I was involved in the AIRTuB project, which stands for Automatic Inspection & Repair of Turbine Blades. Together, the HZ, Scalda, TU Delft and the Netherlands Air and Space Center have developed a robot that can provide fully automated and autonomous inspection of wind turbine blades. Degradation of blades negatively affects energy yield, among other things. An additional example is the research group that has developed edible plastic. This foil that wraps around an apple, for example, is edible and keeps the fruit fresh. A sustainable alternative to the environmentally unfriendly plastic that now surrounds many fruits and vegetables. It's all about social issues that impact livability. The JRCZ brings everyone together in one place."
Makerspaces for research
Each floor of the building has spaces where students, teachers and researchers come together, so called makerspaces. Here they inspire and help each other solve issues. Leo: "This way of working immediately brings to light the combination of practical and theoretical training. We need thinkers and doers to arrive at solutions. In addition to coming up with the best possible solutions, we want to produce and design prototypes as smartly as possible. The makerspaces reveal the drive of thinkers and doers. Bringing education types together is a conscious goal of the people behind the JRCZ. We can approach complex issues from different angles. Previously I have revived the cooperation between Scalda and HZ and this cross-pollination brings great insights. At the JRCZ, we go a step further and bring together MBO, HBO and WO. At one central location in the middle of Middelburg, in the Southwest Delta.
"The makerspaces reveal the drive of thinkers and doers... We can approach complex issues from different angles."
We therefore see Zeeland as a testing ground for innovative sustainable energy and water safety concepts. We have the expertise to facilitate offshore companies and start collaborations. Barbara adds: "Together we are working on the formula of the future of not only Zeeland, but also the world beyond. We are contributing to the great task we face as humanity. The energy sector is constantly evolving and with big data and bio-based materials, among others, we are making a difference. The high-tech laboratories for engineering, chemistry, ecology and a data lab are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. This makes the JRCZ attractive not only for international students, but also for the partners we work with.
Parties interested in collaborating or using the laboratories and research spaces can contact the JRCZ. HZ University of Applied Sciences already does so through HZ Nexus: the link between the outside world and education and research. Leo himself also has contact with interested parties: "Together we look at how the issue fits within the themes and the combination of education and research. Quality assurance is an important part of this. We are already getting requests for the use of our high-tech labs. Special initiatives emerge from the research that give students a boost on the job market. It regularly happens that they begin start-ups themselves or with the help of our network. It also happens that our partner companies offer students their first job. In this way, we not only attract science talent to Zeeland, but also retain them in the region."