Research Domains

CMK unites top environmental research and industrial collaboration to address challenges of high societal urgency that require analyses that span across the boundaries of different scientific domains and disciplines.

We conduct fundamental and applied research

  • to better understand influences of the environment on organisms
  • to develop and assess sustainable clean technologies to mitigate influences of the environment on organisms, and
  • to monitor, value and optimize biodiversity and ecosystem services under different stress conditions, including climate change

Unravel impact of environmental stressors on plants

Research within CMK has been pioneering work in the field of environmental contamination in the last 20 years

To further unravel the metal tolerance mechanisms, their molecular genetic basis and the evolutionary mechanisms behind the adaptation, comparative genome studies of ectomycorrhizal fungi, Suillus isolates, displaying extreme tolerance phenotypes (hypertolerant for Zn, tolerant for Cd, Cu and Zn or metal-sensitive) are necessary. This strategy allows us to screen for genetic divergence among phenotypic groups, to identify the genetic loci associated with adaptive metal tolerance, to identify and understand the natural variability of these loci. Genes on high-effect size genetic loci associated with adaptive tolerance can be identified and functionally characterized to clarify their role in metal tolerance.

We also gather fundamental knowledge on mechanisms underlying stress responses in plants. As both cellular signalling and interorgan signalling are important for the plant’s survival under stress, the interaction between root and shoot as well as responses within one organ are of crucial importance to study stress-induced plant acclimation to the environment. In this regard research focuses on the interplay between abiotic stress-induced oxidative challenge (antioxidants vs pro-oxidants) and other signalling components, i.e. plant hormones, MAPkinases and interorganellar signaling in relation to plant growth and development. In addition, cell wall properties/remodelling and cell division are important processes investigated in model organisms as well as crops. The physiological significance of these responses is studied within one generation and in multigenerational/transgenerational settings.

In order to develop future strategies to ensure plant growth and crop quality and safety on marginal land or agricultural land under pressure, analyzing targeted agronomic traits such as yield, antioxidant levels and abiotic stress resistance are essential. In order to ensure plant safety, a 96-well screening method is developed to quickly determine growth-promoting substances such as fertilizers or negative effects of external factors including pollutants. In combination with fundamental knowledge on the short- and long-term stress responses in plants (see 1-plant stress responses), which provides new biomarkers for this screening method, this is a powerful tool to assess plant fitness and toxicology.

Professors

Long term data on the interaction between the environment and children's health

We are world expert on monitoring health impact of air pollution, using the ENVIRONAGE birth cohort.

Environmental factors, such as air pollution and nutrition, can affect the fetal health during the prenatal period. The importance of the prenatal health is now known as the 'developmental origins of health and disease'. ENVIRONAGE (environmental influence on early ageing) investigates the underlying mechanisms of age-related disorders, such as cardiovascular diseases, dementia and diabetes. By studying newborns and children, we aim to find predictive markers of ageing, which are linked to environmental exposures. ENVIRONAGE is a longitudinal study that aims to investigate the influence of environmental exposures during pregnancy and early life on the health of children. Recruitment occurs at birth, the first follow-up occurs at the age of four to six years, and then at the pre-adolescent age.

Projects

  • ENVIRONAGE - The ENVIRONAGE birth cohort study is designed to carry out prospective epidemiological follow-up as from the newborn stage, to obtain evidence on the interactions of environmental exposures with processes of ageing
  • ATHLETE - ATHLETE (Advancing Tools for Human Early Lifecourse Exposome Research and Translation) is a European-funded project that aims to better understand and prevent health effects of numerous environmental hazards and their mixtures, starting from the earliest stages of life.

Professors

Study the effect of the environment on well-being

We study the impact of green for better living, working and learning conditions

Exposure to nature, including green spaces, has been associated with improved physical and mental health as well as well-being. We use Epigenetics as a sensitive and early measure which can represent sensors of external stimuli, interfacing between exposure and health outcome. These chemical processes which influence the ability of DNA to give instructions, are an inheritable mechanism with long-term health outcomes and may influence whether phenotypes could be manifested physically. Moreover,  we perform intervention studies to analyze how stress can lower and cognition can improve when employees perform activities in nature during the work hours, and to analyse the impact of exposure to nature on the health, cognitive performance and well-being of schoolchildren. We integrate subjective (well-being, life satisfaction) and objective (epigenetics, cognition) outcomes with the ultimate goal of providing a solid and practical scientific evidence-base for policy-makers, enabling them to devise and implement informed and cost-effective interventions, aimed at improving mental health and well-being.

Projects

  • GREENBRAIN -  The physiological and economic impact of nearby green space on stress, cognitive and behavioral development and mental well-being of children
  • Groene gezonde basischolen - Joint project funded by the Belgian province of Limburg and the Dutch province of Limburg.
  • Nature based prevention for burnout - This pilot study analyzes the effect of nature-based activities for the reduction of work-related stress disorders

Professors

Study the impact of emerging pollutants

We offer neomodels as an alternative non-mammalian, in vivo carcinogenic assay, to bridge the gap between in vitro /cellular assays and mammalian models in carcinogenicity screenings (EP15159158.3)

We have a wide portfolio of toxicity tests, and aim to provide alternative models and model systems to assess different types of toxicity (carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, developmental toxicity). Our Neomodels assay is based on changes in stem cell dynamics and has the potential to detect non-genotoxic carcinogens, which is advantageous to current test that have a weak sensitivity and poor reliability towards these compounds. In general, special attention is given to stem cells are promising tools in the evaluation of potential toxic effects.

An accurate assessment of health risks associated with human exposures to chemicals is of great importance from both public health and economic perspectives. Recent developments in principles and methodology of toxicity testing are applied to new pollutants, such as nanomaterials.

We investigate the impact of nanoparticles, microplastics and heavy metals on human health and aquatic organisms 

We aim to provide an in-depth mechanistic understanding of the interplay between physicochemical characteristics of the nanoparticles and their effects. Such a detailed understanding of nanoparticle toxicity is a necessary first step in function of future risk assessment strategies. More in particular, for nanoplastics, to date, the precise fate of these types of plastics in the human body, the exposure of humans to it, and its toxicity have not been established. We develop a workflow for Nano- and Microplastics (NMPs) exposure assessment, based on our recently developed label-free and biocompatible detection technique for combustion-derived particles (WO2017120647A1, US20190025215A1). We also establish a toxicological prediction model for NMPs, based on our strong trajectory in studying the mode-of-action as a key determinant of chemical toxicity and on our vast expertise in the development and validation of toxicity tests (EP15159158.3)

An internal exposure marker for black carbon particles that have cleared from the systemic circulation has been developed within Hasselt University (Carbon black, patent pending)

Urinary black carbon mirrors the accumulation of medium-term to chronic exposure to combustion-related air pollution. This specific biomarker reflects internal systemic black carbon particles cleared from the circulation into the urine, allowing not only investigators to unravel the complexity of particulate-related health effects.

We gather fundamental knowledge on the signals that steer tissue regeneration

Using a highly regenerative animal model we investigate stem cells in their natural niche to understand the signals that are involved in successful regeneration events. In particular, we focus on how redox molecules and the related redox balance influence planarian physiology, functioning and regeneration capacity. The fundamental knowledge we gain from our research is highly relevant for downstream applications in the field of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

Projects

  • AURORA - Researching early life health impacts of micro- and nano-plastics
  • MOMENTUM - The project aims to identify and ultimately prevent effects of MNPs on human health

Professors

Research in medical dosimetry for advanced radiotherapy

We have a large expertise in developing and applying medical dosimetry, in particular for radiotherapy

The focus is on the exposure to radiation from a radioprotection point of view (negative aspects) of for medical use (positive aspects). CMK collaborates with the Belgian government in developing dosimetry audits in the domain of radiotherapy. The dosimetry knowledge has also already been applied in the context of biological studies and can be put in service to anybody who needs a more precise determination of the dose in their experiments (such as hospitals).

Projects

  • Microdosimetry - Develop a method based on the use of a physical dosimeter, a microdosimeter, that can be deployed for routine use in a clinical setting

Professors

Clean up contaminated land with plants and their associated bacteria and the use of the resulting biomass

We are a worldwide pioneer in the use of plants and bacteria for soil remediation and increased biomass production on marginal land (spin off Bio2Clean)

Phytoremediation is a sustainable, green remediation technology that uses plants (e.g. willow, poplar, hemp) and their associated microorganisms to remediate contaminated soil, (ground)water or sediment via degradation, extraction, stabilization, transformation or volatilization. Phytoremediation is a sustainable and low cost remediation alternative compared to traditional remediation techniques. The resulting harvested biomass can be used as a sustainable alternative e.g. in construction material, textile and as a source for bio energy. We characterize the plant’s associated microbial community in order to understand and optimize its influence on biomass production and contamination uptake. We also analyze the resulting biomass for its alternative end uses.

We recently started a project aiming to explore the combination of ‘microbe-assisted phytoremediation’ and ‘bio-photovoltaics’, in which living plants and their associated microbiome could fulfill the double function of cleaning up contamination and producing electricity. Recently, phytoremediation of air pollution is proposed as a strategy to improve air quality in urban areas.

Projects

  • Phy2Climate - A global approach for recovery of arable land through improved phytoremediation coupled with advanced liquid biofuel production and climate friendly copper smelting process
  • Bio2Clean - A CMK spin off  for the remediation of soil and groundwater in a qualitative, sustainable and environmentally friendly way
  • RESANAT - Remediate residual contamination with nature-based techniques

Professors

Optimize circular agricultural production

We have the complete multidisciplinary expertise in-house that is required for the transition to a circular agricultural production model 

We map potential crop yields and valorisation opportunities on marginal lands under different regional conditions in Europe and optimize biomass production and valorisation with biofertilizers or soil additives, such as silicon. We also investigate 'circularity', i.e. the maximum use of input materials and reuse of the waste produced by the system.

Pyrolysis is a technology that can be used for the production of new adsorbents (i.e. biochar or active carbon) to improve the quality of moderately polluted soils and organic or inorganic polluted water. We have expertise in the overall pyrolysis optimization cycle: from reactor design to development of new methods to perform, qualify and quantify the adsorption characteristics of the developed adsorbents. We study biochar as matrix component for several new applications in agriculture and urban green areas.

Projects

  • Spacebakery -  is a closed ecological plant cultivation system and bakery that will aid the long-term survival of settlers on Mars in addition to being applicable for modern agriculture on Earth.
  • Biofoodonmars - Biofortified and climate-resilient food and fodder production on marginal soils
  • BASTA - Biochar’s added value in sustainable land use with targeted applications
  • ECOCITIES - Green roofs and green walls as a source of ecosystem services in our future cities.

Professors

Analyse adsorption capacity of activated carbon

In collaboration with SCK CEN and JRC, we have the expertise to perform and compare adsorption and desorption studies of water soluble and gaseous (radiological) contaminants on different kinds of adsorbents (AC, biochar, zeolites, embedded nanoparticles, …). We execute leaching studies of new developed matrices. ACs are produced from various industrial and agricultural rest streams using pyrolysis and activation. Production facilities for ACs (lab-scale to pilot-scale) are available in house. We also investigate the efficiency of regeneration of these dedicated adsorbents, and assess their performance for special applications in nuclear emergency monitoring, environmental protection and waste treatment. We collaborate closely with SCK CEN, JRC Karlsruhe, and Act & Sorb.

Professors

Treatment and reuse of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM)

An important focus of the research is on the reuse of NORM in construction materials. New cementitious binders (alkali activated materials (AAMs), ettringite binders) were developed for the reuse of NORM. During the research, the radiological and chemical properties of the newly developed cementitious binders are evaluated. This involves gammaspectrometric analysis, leaching analysis and the evaluation of radon exhalation and emanation. For the reuse/management of NORM residues also a techno-economic assessment is performed and perception aspects regarding the reuse of NORM are investigated.

Projects

  • RADONORM - Towards effective radiation protection based on improved scientific evidence and social considerations

Professors

Reuse during nuclear decommissioning and immobilisation of nuclear waste

During the process of nuclear decommissioning, dismantling of nuclear installations, we aim to reuse as much as possible materials, so that the remaining fraction that ends up as nuclear waste is reduced as much as possible.  The research focusses on the mapping/characterisation of radiological contaminated surfaces in the initial stages of Nuclear Decommissioning via robots and light weight radiological probes or a gamma camera for Compton imaging. The radiological risks are visualised in a Virtual Reality (VR) training environment for radiation protection training of workers during nuclear decommissioning.

In the field of nuclear waste management, alkali activated materials (AAMs) are being developed as potential new encapsulation matrix for radioactive waste. For the AAMs, the immobilisation and radiation shielding properties of AAMs are investigated for nuclear applications. In this framework, UHasselt was selected as a preferable partner for a CDP (Collaborative Doctoral Partnership) within the topic of ‘nuclear waste and decommissioning’ with JRC (Joint Research Centre).

Projects

  • Archer - Automate radiation characterization during nuclear decommissioning using a robotic platform

Professors

We have developed a methodological framework for techno-sustainability analysis (TSA) for cleantech in function of its technology readiness level (TRL), in which techno-economic, environmental and social LCA are integrated.

Whenever trade-offs exist, it becomes difficult to choose among alternative clean production pathways. Societal techno-economic assessment then is a way to integrate the environmental aspects with economics in order to make optimal investment and/or policy decisions regarding cleantech. Recently, efforts are directed more towards the integration of environmental aspects with (private) economic aspects by means of shadow prices. The latter is what we call a societal TEA that reflects both the societal value of environmental impacts and the private costs and benefits associated with cleantech. If appropriate and properly measured, those shadow prices help to determine optimal (societal) strategies for the transition towards more sustainable production and consumption as environmental and economic aspects can be expressed in one single monetary indicator.

The legal research includes amongst others comparative studies of different regional/national/European/international regimes, assistance to governments/businesses with legal bottlenecks, help with forward looks and the creation of new legal frameworks.

Projects

  • PERCISTAND - Development of all thin-film perovskite-on-chalcogenide tandem photovoltaics
  • ASCENT 1 - Alternative Jet fuel Supply Chain Analysis
  • ALTERNATE - Potential climate change mitigation strategies based on the use of alternative jet fuel pathways
  • AGROMINE - The project aims to exploit ore differently, plants are used to take care of it gently
  • STARGATE - is the response of a consortium of 22 entities led by Brussels Airport committing to create green airports as multimodal hubs for sustainable and smart mobility
  • CleanH2 - CLEANH2 will address the critical issues to make hydrogen production through solar-powered water splitting efficient and affordable
  • SolarEMR - The project helps in getting integrated PV over the current roadblocks 

Professors

Optimize agricultural production under climate change - using simulations in the Ecotron

We perform state of the art climate change simulation in our ECOTRON facility for future proof agriculture

There is land that is left aside from agricultural use, because it is too poor, too polluted, or too dry to be profitable. This represents a large area in Europe, more than 38.5 million Ha. On the other hand, there is an ever increasing pressure on arable land, to be able to feed the increasing world population. Can we make this marginal land attractive again for food or feed production? If yes, how? And can we do that with a minimal C footprint? These are questions that researchers over the world are busy answering. We study how we can produce biofortified and climate-resilient food and fodder.

We simulate the effect of future climate on the functioning of natural ecosystems, and the consequences for society.

Climate change will favor dominance of fast-growing, resilient species. One of the main consequences of climate change, at least in the EU, is that weather will become increasingly extreme. This will result in more extreme events: more droughts, more floods, more heatwaves. This will cause plant mortality, even to stress-tolerant species, as these extremes will become increasingly severe over the years. Usually, the plants that tolerate a high level of stress are growing slowly, because they allocate lots of their energy to stress resistance. In opposite, species with low stress tolerance are often fast-growing and resilient, and will recover faster from extreme events.

Long term experiments

  • BioFoodonmars - We evaluate the benefits of using Si amendments on crops growing on marginal land, under future climate conditions
  • Drought impact on heathland -  This ecotron experiment simulates the effect of future climate on the functioning of the heathland ecosystem, and the consequences for society
  • Ecotron infrastructure

Professors

Develop innovative methods for evidence-based policy making

We assess people’s preferences and willingness to pay for policies and solutions targeted at the mitigation of and adaptation to environmental problems. We use both stated and revealed preference methods for this. Our research also contributes to identifying and shaping best practices in stated choice modelling. Moreover, we apply methods that allow explaining and stimulating pro-environmental behavior such as structural equations modelling and survey experiments.

Moreover, we also perform fundamental research on the presence of biases in published empirical findings and it prioritizes to reduce and correct for these biases to provide a solid and science-driven foundation for evidence-based policy making. We are mainly interested in meta-research in environmental economics and climate research as evidence-based policy making in these fields is of particular societal interest and urgency.

Professors

Study biodiversity in natural protected areas

We investigate the space use and behavior of medium-sized mammals using a long-term camera trap design

The focus is on changes in their ecology caused by the interactions between humans and wildlife (e.g. such as recreation and hunting). We use and optimize existing spatial distribution models. However, the inability of camera traps to identify individuals of species without natural markings, in addition to limits in individual detectability, is a well-known obstacle in faunistic abundance estimation, preventing the use of traditional analytical techniques to quantify population dynamics. Therefore, in CMK, together with DSI, we develop a statistical framework for camera trap data analysis in ecological research. Recently proposed methods provide solutions, but often fail to account for multiple sources of bias and typically focus only on the analysis of a single target species. Moreover, it remains unclear how study protocols affect their performance and to what extent cost-effectiveness differs between study designs. At CMK, we use a statistical framework to analyze data from camera traps. We study mammalian population dynamics in the National Park Hoge Kempen (Belgium) and formulate conservation strategies, using data from a wide range of taxonomic groups. We extend existing methodology into less assumption-driven models, including simulations for single species and communities, and compare their potential, from statistical, practical, and economic perspectives. This will yield improved guidelines for data collectors and analysts, as well as a better understanding of mammalian abundances with the potential for direct implementation in conservation policies. For this research domain CMK collaborates intensively with the fauna division of INBO and DSI-UHasselt.

We study ways to translate knowledge on species in natural protected areas into policy advice

We perform a detailed analysis of space and habitat use; we evaluate the breeding success and survival; we investigate the food availability, in addition to possible food crops, and we analyze the body condition of individuals through blood analyses. The target species and areas are determined in consultation with the client. The effects of the environment on the occurrence of these specific species and the effects of associated management measures on the distribution of these species is statistically processed at three different scale levels. Currently, we have focussed on the nightjar, field and meadow birds, and the wild boar.

Projects

  • the Nightjar - A multi-disciplinary approach is used to gain the necessary knowledge in the ecology, microhabitat preference and behaviour of these birds
  • WASP Project - In this project we employ a citizen science approach to contribute towards a better understanding of the public perception of various animal groups, and of how this perception is linked to these animals’ traits and their role in society and in ecosystems.

Professors

Study biodiversity, including in aquatic systems

CMK is considered to be one of the world-leading institutes as it comes to (flatworm) taxonomy

One of the main topics of the biodiversity research of CMK is the biology of invertebrates, meiofauna, and aquatic parasites in particular, with a main emphasis on taxonomy, phylogeny and biogeography. Interests involve "classical" taxonomical studies, and in-depth molecular phylogenetic, phylogenomic, population genomic and phylogeographical analyses, in order to elucidate important evolutionary events (e.g. habitat shifts, origin of parasitic/symbiotic life styles) and to disentangle cryptic diversity. Moreover, we conduct applied philosophical research focussing on the role of values in species descriptions, which can have major impact on policy making regarding nature conservation issues. CMK participates in worldwide projects such as the Freshwater Animal Diversity Assessment (FADA), and the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), which offer up-to-date information on biodiversity to all types of end users.

Projects

Professors

Capacity building in developing countries on biodiversity and environmental issues

We translate biodiversity information into capacity building and sustainable development in developing countries

We have long-term institutional partnerships (Institutional University Cooperations - VLIR) with the University of Moulay Ismail in Morocco on sustainability and energy; and with the Universidad de Oriente in Cuba on biodiversity, the environment and food production. We also have numerous smaller-scale collaborations with universities and research institutes throughout sub-Saharan Africa, mainly on the monitoring and management of aquatic ecosystems.

Projects

  • VLIR UOS Morocco - The project aims to strengthen the institutional capacities of the University to support regional actors in terms of appropriation and integration of sustainability tools
  • VLIR UOS Cuba - The project intends to structure the doctoral school while offering doctorands an environment where they  acquire scientific skills, and are trained towards communicating research results, innovation and transfer of innovation to industry and society, along with the reinforcement of the digitization of the university administration

Professors

Environmental crime prosecution

We are the European expert on studying the prosecution and sanctioning of environmental crime in Europe

Law enforcement is the cornerstone of any policy. Legislation that does not contain effective enforcement provisions remains a dead letter. The limited knowledge of administrative sanctions schemes contrasts sharply with their policy relevance. Unlike criminal sanctions, most of which are primarily aimed at punishment, many administrative sanctions primarily aim to undo the infringement. We offer a substantiated answer to questions that concern the core of the subject, such as: What administrative sanctions exist in our environmental law? What is their law enforcement potential? What about the sanctioning practice?

Professors

Sustainable aviation fuels: Economics, environmental performance and regulation

We are a world expert on the economics and the environmental performance of sustainable aviation fuels

For more than a decade we have been conducting research to help make aviation greener. Our core  area of research is sustainable aviation fuels, in particular with regard to assessments on their economic and environmental viability (using e.g. Techno-Economic Assessments and Life Cycle Assessments) and with regard to designing methods to appropriately account for those fuels in international climate regulation. As such, we have been serving since 2016 as a Task-lead for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Alternative Fuels Task Force/Fuels Task Group.

Projects

  • ASCENT 1 - Alternative Jet fuel Supply Chain Analysis
  • ALTERNATE - Potential climate change mitigation strategies based on the use of alternative jet fuel pathways
  • STARGATE - is the response of a consortium of 22 entities led by Brussels Airport committing to create green airports as multimodal hubs for sustainable and smart mobility

Professors

Training and education for a sustainable and circular society

We create transformative learning environments for sustainable development

We are fascinated by educational research on the integration of sustainability in (business) economics education. Therefore, we coordinate several projects on biobased education and competences for a biobased and circular economy, such as circular entrepreneurship. Also, we study the interaction between students and lecturers in terms of the roles of a business person towards sustainability. We are a member of the COPERNICUS Alliance i.e., the European Network on Higher Education for Sustainable Development.

Projects

  • Erasmus+ Activ8 planet - In the Active8-Planet project we aim to research and experiment with unconventional approaches towards teaching and learning that would empower and mobilize students towards future-oriented climate and sustainability actions
  • CILO - Educational program to bring circular business to secondary schools
  • CIRCLESPEED - Take the highway to circular enterprise

Professors

How can the environment influence organisms?

How can we mitigate the influences of the environment on organisms?

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