The PhD researcher will be part of a Marie-Sklodowska Curie Doctoral Network DENSE (Dependable smart energy systems), and will be hosted jointly by VITO’s THES research group and KU Leuven’s Innovative Design for Energy Applications Lab ("IDEAL"). The IDEAL research group is led by prof. Maarten Blommaert and is embedded in the Mechanical Engineering Department of KU Leuven, Europe's most innovative university [Reuters], member of the EnergyVille research collaboration for sustainable energy research, and located at Geel campus. 

Building on prof. Blommaert's expertise on numerical optimization of flow and heat transfer, IDEAL focuses on the optimal design of (thermal) energy components and systems through free-shape and topology optimization techniques. As such, the group aims at increasing energy efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, and realizing cost savings.

On the energy component level, the performance is maximized through the development, implementation, and validation of model-based shape and topology optimization techniques that maximally exploit the degrees of freedom offered by present-day manufacturing processes. Applications include the design of highly effective heat exchangers and the design of heat-resistant heat sinks for nuclear fusion reactors.

At energy system level, the group aims at navigating the ever more complex design challenges of renewable-based heating networks with nonlinear transport models and optimization techniques. Its close research collaborations with other academic research groups in heat and fluid engineering, computational techniques, material sciences, and manufacturing processes on the one hand, and valorization partners in EnergyVille and industry on the other, creates a unique environment where fundamental research findings pave the way to design innovation in energy applications.

Website KU Leuven IDEAL research group


The research group is presently looking for a motivated PhD researcher to develop techniques for the optimal planning of future-proof renewable-based heating networks, building upon existing infrastructure. The PhD will be part of a Marie-Sklodowska Curie Doctoral Network "DENSE" (Dependable smart energy systems).  


Heating networks are considered one of the core technologies to enable renewable space heating, and to overcome the current reliance on gas and oil. Using thermal storage, they offer a cost-effective way to provide flexibility for electrical grids that become more and more subject to the intermittency of renewables like wind and PV. In addition, next-generation heat networks that operate at low temperatures, are able to incorporate high shares of renewable-based heat sources and waste heat sources. However, the planning of such systems is no straightforward task, especially in existing systems that were built for high-temperature, fossil fuel-based operation. Moreover, the physics of the system is nonlinear in nature and their optimal planning is case specific and involves several uncertain parameters that impact the viability of the project. Therefore, automated design methods can seriously facilitate this process.

To fundamentally tackle the design problem, the PhD student starts from the novel optimal design approach that was recently developed in a collaboration between KU Leuven and VITO in the framework of EnergyVille, which is the first to realize physics-based optimal design of network topologies for heating networks of practical size [1-3]. On this basis, a framework will be developed for the optimal retrofitting of existing infrastructure to robust, flexible, and energy-efficient low-temperature networks. By considering heat production, network changes, and redesign of substations as part of the optimization, the limits of waste heat integration are aimed for through an optimal decrease of operational temperatures. Simultaneously, robust operation has to be guaranteed to ensure user comfort. 

The PhD student will be hosted at VITO and be part of VITO’s THES group in EnergyVille and will work in close collaboration with KU Leuven’s IDEAL group [4]. Through the strong collaborations between researchers of both groups, the PhD research keeps a close link to both the development of model-based optimal design algorithms, as well as to the application in district heating development projects in Belgium. Moreover, the successful applicant for this position will be enrolled in the excellent doctoral training program of KU Leuven’s Arenberg Doctoral School.

Required skills

You are a highly motivated, enthusiastic and communicative researcher, and you are strongly interested in the development of models and optimization procedures for the design of next-generation district heating networks. Moreover, you are a team player that enjoys collaborating with people within the research group, the project, and beyond, and have:

  • A master's degree in Engineering with a background in mechanical engineering, computer science, or related field, from a reputable institute, with outstanding study results,
  • A background in numerical modelling,
  • The qualities to carry out independent research, demonstrated e.g., by the grades obtained on your MSc thesis,
  • An excellent command of the English language, both in spoken and written form,
  • A critical mindset.
  • Moreover, candidates have to comply with the mobility rule for doctoral networks: they must not have resided or carried out their main activity in Belgium for more than 12 months in the 36 months immediately before their recruitment date.

Additional research/educational experience in any of the following topics is considered a strong advantage:

  • Coding in languages such as MATLAB and python, 
  • (Gradient-based) numerical optimization,
  • District heating and cooling,
  • Flow and heat transfer modelling,
  • Topology optimization.


  • A 3-year doctoral scholarship within an international Marie Curie doctoral network
  • The opportunity for a research stay abroad with one of the partners within the doctoral network 
  • If successful, a PhD in Engineering Technology at KU Leuven university
  • A competitive salary and additional benefits such as health insurance, access to university sports facilities, etc.
  • The opportunity to be active in an exciting and international research environment, engage in research collaborations and participate at international conferences
  • An excellent doctoral training at the Arenberg Doctoral School in an international environment at a top European university. This will allow you to gain the skills required to successfully complete your PhD, as well as develop yourself as an independent researcher. Moreover, opportunities are provided to acquire deeper knowledge in subjects related to the topic by participating in trainings, summer schools, or lecture series in- and outside of KU Leuven
  • A flexible working culture with opportunity to up to 40% remote working

More details and how to apply: Central recruitment page of the doctoral network
Application deadline: 31/03/2024 (5pm CET)

Applicants should apply via mail to the central recruitment address of the Marie-Sklodowska Curie Doctoral Network DENSE at  following *strictly* the instructions in the "guide for applicants" at the central recruitment page

Do NOT directly apply in the online KU Leuven system as referred to below, nor in the VITO application system. The applications there will not be monitored.