Taking a leaf out of nature’s book

Mimicking photosynthesis may be the key to unlocking a future energy scene dominated by renewables. But nature’s simple process still holds many secrets. In light of the high-level Cefic breakfast debate on advanced materials and energy challenges that took place at the 7th European Innovation Summit, we delve into how breakthroughs in materials may help resign fossil fuels to the past through the development of novel technologies and perhaps – eventually – artificial leaves.

The development of novel processes using waste carbon dioxide – up to and including the ultimate goal of artificial photosynthesis – feature in the SusChem Innovation and Research Agenda.

Photosynthesis is a wonder of nature. It transforms energy from the light that the Sun bathes the Earth in to energy‐rich sugars. Simply put, it takes carbon dioxide and water, and converts them to glucose and oxygen. There are two stages to this process. The first – water splitting – converts water into oxygen and a protein. In the next step, the protein reacts with CO2 to produce biomass. So far, scientists have only managed to master the former, splitting water using electrolytic processes to create hydrogen gas instead of biomass. But even on its own this feat was a huge achievement, paving the way for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles being actively commercialised today by the likes of Daimler and Toyota, and for the power industry taking hydrogen energy storage seriously as an option to deal with intermittent renewable power generation.

Hydrogen has some limitations

While hydrogen has one of the highest energy densities of any fuel, it is also the lightest of all elements. This means its storage requires very large volumes or very high pressures, resulting in issues of safety. Furthermore, the high cost of developing infrastructure and the energy intensity of the water splitting process offer sceptics a strong argument that hydrogen may not be the future for energy storage or the automotive industry.

“Hydrogen has some limitations,” confirms Sophie Wilmet, Cefic Innovation Manager. Sophie believes CO2 conversion technologies might provide a good alternative for large-scale storage of renewable energy using existing infrastructure. “CO2 can be used to address the energy storage challenge brought about by the rise in renewables, as well as for alternative fuels for transport.”

Carbon as a resource

Although not using direct photoconversion of CO2, a number of technologies are being actively explored to transform CO2 from a reviled waste product to a useful resource, as Sophie explains: “From CO2 you can produce basic and added-value chemicals”.

For example, a process co-developed by RWTH Aachen University and Covestro, formerly Bayer MaterialScience, has led to the construction of a plant that will be opened in 2016 in Dormagen, Germany, capable of producing up to 5000 metric tons per year of polyols, a polyurethane intermediate. About 20% of the content of the polyols will be from waste CO2 captured from a nearby ammonia plant, with the final material a flexible foam for mattresses.

Another innovator is Icelandic company Carbon Recycling International (CRI), whose renewable methanol reduces carbon emissions by more than 90% compared to fossil fuels. The fuel is produced from CO2 and hydrogen that comes from renewable sources of electricity. The world’s first liquid renewable transport fuel production facility from non-biological sources of energy, CRI has a 4000 metric ton per year production capacity.

Further novel ideas include using large volumes of waste CO2 from industrial processes to produce syngas (BASF);  converting waste gases from iron and steel mills into ethanol and other important chemicals, such as acetic acid, acetone, isopropanol, n-butanol or 2,3 butanediol (Siemens/LanzaTech); and creating a closed carbon cycle using renewable energy, CO2 and water to provide sustainable fuels for vehicles and decentralised electricity generation (sunfire).

Mimicking nature

Capable of absorbing CO2 at the very low concentrations (400 parts per million) found in the air, absorbing energy from low-photon count sunlight, and photosynthetic cell self-repair, the ‘technology’ within plants is far more advanced than anything devised by humankind so far.
However, with aeons to perfect the technique, it comes as something of a surprise that energy conversion in plants is not actually particularly efficient: “For most plants the photosynthetic and storage efficiency is an average of 1%,” explains Dr Junwang Tang, Reader in Energy from University College London, UK.  Why is photosynthesis so inefficient? “The natural process is capable of utilising 100% of photons but green plants give up that potential to protect themselves – nature doesn’t need so much energy.”

As a result, if society were to mimic photosynthesis unaltered, there would not be enough land on Earth to cycle the carbon required for a sustainable future. Instead, researchers are aiming to enhance the process from a number of angles. “We have learnt how nature stores CO2 and we have realised that we can probably do better,” exclaims Junwang.

Direct photoconversion

A major roadblock in developing such technology is finding photocatalysts that can absorb as much of the solar spectrum as possible while still being efficient. As plants only use a fraction of the visible range, great potential lies in the untapped electromagnetic spectrum, so photocatalysts that respond to different regions are being investigated. Other researchers are exploring doping, nanomaterials and co-catalyst surface-loading to improve the photocatalytic response of promising materials.

However, with numerous other hurdles to climb before real-world application, Sophie expects there to be a long wait before artificial leaves are realised: “It still requires development in terms of new concepts, designs of photoelectrodes and integration of the system,” she explains. “For Cefic, it’s part of our overall long-term strategy, but more like a second- or third-generation technology that will not have impact by 2020.”

Even though tangible impact from direct photoconversion seems a long way off, Europe’s competitors are keen to advance the state of the art now, with a number of multi-million Euro projects funded in Japan, a Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis set up in the US and well-funded initiatives in many other parts of the world.

As a result, Junwang believes Europe’s highly able yet currently fragmented and small community of scientists working in the area needs to be brought together: “Europe is very strong in fundamental understanding of artificial and natural photosynthesis, but countries like Japan, USA and China are investing heavily in this technology through well-funded projects. If we don’t invest more – just like has happened with graphene – other countries will heavily patent the field.”

The Cefic breakfast debate

The Cefic breakfast debate took place at the 7th European Innovation Summit in the European Parliament on 8 December. The event was hosted by Jerzy Buzek, MEP and covered the wide-ranging topic of ‘Advanced Materials and breakthrough opportunities for the energy transition’.

Originally published on the SusChem Blog

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Europe: the leading light in the photonics sector

With some of the most talented photonics and optics experts on the planet, Europe has a peerless knowledgebase. At the same time however, the continent has traditionally been seen as a fragmented player, with strong skills in different regions, topics, universities and companies, but little structure to join up efforts.

A large part of this problem stemmed from the fact that there was no voice or community to tie stakeholders together. So when Photonics21 was created in 2005, photonics and optics experts welcomed its potential to both unite them and to get their concerns heard at the European level. Now, as a recognised Key Enabling Technology (KET) with a Photonics21-penned strategic roadmap, photonics and optics is projected to receive roughly €700 million over the seven years of Horizon 2020.

Photonics around the world

Although not the only indicator of the health of a sector in a country or region, the number of patents granted gives a rough idea of interest in a particular area. According to the KETs Observatory, between 2000 and 2011 Europe’s share of photonics patents gently fluctuated between 25 and 30%. In contrast, the US’s share shrank from 37 to 18%. Meanwhile China went from almost 0 to 9% in the same period of time, with similar growth in other Southeast Asian nations.

Perhaps the most revealing of these statistics are those from the US. The US was seen as a world leader in photonics innovation for decades in the 20th century, but more recently has fallen behind nations who have invested heavily in photonics innovation and worked hard to create cohesive strategies in order to capitalise on their strong skills in the sector.

Recognising this problem, in 2012 the National Research Council of the National Academies released Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation, which called for an umbrella organisation to coordinate the advancement of the US optics and photonics industry. Five of the most prominent American light-related organisations immediately heeded the advice, setting up the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) in the same year.

Now, NPI works with government, industry and academia to drive innovation in the photonics sector in the US. As a direct result of this work, NPI recommendations for a photonics prototyping and advanced manufacturing facility recently bore fruit, with the first Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation launched in July as part of President Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.

Vision for photonics in Europe

According to the Photonics Industry Report, the global photonics market will swell to €615 billion by 2020 and impact hundreds of thousands of jobs. Europe’s share of this market currently stands at ~18%, but for certain core segments – including production technology; optical components and systems; and measurement and automated vision – Europe holds more than one-third of the market, and this figure continues to grow steadily.

Consequently, optics and photonics are incredibly important to the European economy. But with such clear intent from both the US in regaining its dominant position and Southeast Asia in growing its influence as the (relatively) new player in the field, Europe has a challenge in maintaining its position as a major force in the sector.

However, far from just looking to preserve the status quo, Photonics21 and the European Commission are actually aiming to grow Europe’s influence and, in the process, tackle some of the most important socio-economic challenges of the 21st century.

Two important factors are key to realising this ambition. First is to continue to focus on advanced, beyond-state-of-the-art technologies that will cement Europe’s reputation as an innovator in the field. Southeast Asia dominates the market in areas such as low-cost displays and telecommunications, so instead of competing in this market it is better to advance higher value components and devices with enhanced or novel functionality. Second is a greater emphasis on applied research and demonstration projects. With an excellent history in basic research, it is important for the continent to take advantage of this fundamental knowledge and bridge the Valley of Death to commercialisation.

If the Photonics Public Private Partnership through Horizon 2020 can ensure significant efforts focus on these two areas, the future for Europe’s optics and photonics sector looks very bright indeed.

Originally published in the Photonics21 August 2015 newsletter

Enabling Europe’s century of the photon

How communicating results well justifies investment in Horizon 2020 photonics projects

Central to driving growth and job creation this century will be the advanced technologies underpinning future goods and services. Known as Key Enabling Technologies, the European Commission identified six important areas they believe Europe should lead the world in: micro- and nanoelectronics, nanotechnology, industrial biotechnology, advanced materials, photonics, and advanced manufacturing technologies.

Of these, none can claim more promise than photonics, with potential transformative impacts across every sector imaginable. This potential is why Europe – through its latest research and innovation funding instrument, Horizon 2020 – is investing in this important growth sector, with 31 innovative photonics projects already funded to the tune of €112 million.

Facilitating growth in the European photonics sector through Horizon 2020, the Photonics Public Private Partnership coordinated by European Technology Platform Photonics21 represents the European Commission’s long-term commitment to photonics R&D. But whether Europe will be torchbearers or followers in light technologies depends on a number of factors.

Horizon 2020 projects: showing return on investment

Horizon 2020 has emerged at a tricky time. Indeed, despite the programme having been up and running for over a year, negotiations over its budget continue, with roughly €2.7 billion likely to be shaved off the original €80 billion agreed at the outset.

Why? Because unemployment, public sector cuts and poor economic growth on scales not witnessed for a generation have forced MEPs, the EC and Member States to re-evaluate how they distribute their dwindling funds and, importantly, made citizens evermore critical of how their money is spent.

With this background then, it is no surprise that a core objective of Horizon 2020 and therefore Photonics21 is to vividly demonstrate how it will create growth and jobs through the cutting-edge research projects being funded.

What’s different in Horizon 2020?

Alongside a commendable requirement for Horizon 2020 results to be disseminated in open access, free-of-charge journal articles, the new programme also aims to enhance communication to a wider audience.

Rather than an obligation hidden away in an obscure annex (as was the case in predecessor FP7’s guidelines), communication activities are now a core requirement in Horizon 2020, embedded in project proposals from the outset, and often as a specific work package.

No longer can project leaders solely communicate their results at the project’s end to satisfy the contractual requirements of the grant, they now need to show awareness of and actively engage in communication continuously throughout.

Impact through communication

It may seem to some that this requirement represents yet another layer of peripheral work encroaching on what matters – the research. But communicating the results of a project is what allows potential commercial partners and additional funders to hear about project results, ultimately creating impact. And a strong media presence keeps photonics firmly on the agenda in Brussels, ensuring continued investment from Horizon 2020 and its successors.

So, assuming you apply for funding from the Photonics PPP budget, what do you need to do to ensure Europe knows its money is being spent wisely?

All in the planning

A clear, well-structured communications plan in your project proposal is a great start, allowing you to minimise your time commitment for maximum gain. This can either be created by the project organiser or assigned to a media savvy expert.

Whoever makes the plan, a knowledgeable communicator needs to lead the communications work package, not only to ensure messaging is clear, targeted, well-distributed and well-timed, but also to build and maintain momentum – important to keep your research relevant and high profile in your community and beyond.

Building buzz

Part of this job is creating and maintaining a strong, easy to navigate and regularly updated website, highlighting information useful to both your target stakeholders and the wider public. But beyond this, social media engagement, press releases, graphic design, conference presentations and posters, brochures and even business cards can benefit from the input of a high-quality communications project partner.

Their experience and skills – from search engine optimisation to video production – could make the difference between your project setting off a minor ripple or a surfable wave of media attention, and thus generating commercial and public interest.

Towards 2020

However results are communicated, the obligations set out in Horizon 2020 can only be seen as a step in the right direction, showing all stakeholders in new, interesting and compelling ways how and why their money is being spent on photonics R&D that will touch all of our lives in the future.

With the right communications strategy – led by smart people who aim to apply the same standards of innovation in engaging with their audiences as they do in their research – projects funded under the Photonics PPP have never had a better opportunity to create real-world impact.

Originally published in the Photonics21 June 2015 newsletter

Sharing science

Open science is a concept rapidly gaining traction in the scientific community, whereby hypotheses, methods and results are shared openly with others, allowing real-time peer review and collaboration.

The prime example of a platform offering such functionality is ResearchGate. Often described as social media for scientists, the Berlin-based website has amassed an impressive 4 million members, allowing experts from both closely related and seemingly disparate disciplines from all over the world to collaborate on problems and review findings.

But while ResearchGate is an impressive first step on the road to open science, the potential for the concept to involve the wider non-scientific community in science remains relatively untapped.

Breaking barriers

Although scientific results are already shared by many scientists, this wealth of information is rarely transformed into a user-friendly and contextualised form. As a result the task of accurately reconstructing and judging the merit of experimental methods is rendered extremely difficult, particularly for the layman.

Another barrier is attitudes in the scientific community. Some researchers are sceptical of the value of the public contributing to the scientific process, and fear the additional burden will reduce the time available for conducting actual research.

A final difficulty lies is logistics. Despite the clear benefits of open science – whereby public participation in research could enable the collaborative design and creation of research projects, the cooperative collection and production of information, or the collective repurposing of existing information – few know how to go about making this a reality.

An open culture

Aiming to break down these barriers to allow the realisation of genuinely open science, a number of initiatives are targeting specific scientific questions amenable to a citizen science approach.

One of the most high profile has been running for 15 years at the University of California, Berkeley. SETI@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a project to detect intelligent life beyond Earth. Radio telescopes are used to listen for narrow-bandwidth unnatural radio signals from space but the amount of data requires an inordinate amount of supercomputing power. Therefore, the public has been asked to help by downloading a program that takes a small portion of SETI-generated data over the internet, analyse those data, and then report the results back to the UC Berkeley team.

This distributed computing approach was groundbreaking at the time of SETI@home’s launch, but now other open science projects are allowing the public to get far more involved in the scientific process.

For example, crowdsourcing data analysis conservation initiative ForestWatchers asks volunteers including locals, NGOs and governments to monitor high-resolution Earth images of selected patches of forest across the globe, almost in real-time, using a computer connected to the internet.

Tackling a different problem, the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) was originally inspired by Wikipedia and is a free, online collaborative encyclopaedia intended to document all 1.9 million living species, and eventually extinct species, known to science. Compiling video, sound, images, graphics and text from across the internet on each species, EOL will be a living resource open and free to use for everyone.

These and other projects are showing that, given the will, there is a way to make science truly engaging and open to all. If successful, it will change not only how the public views science, but the most fundamental and unchanging aspect of science itself – the scientific method.