Nanosolutions for Grand Challenges
One of the grand challenges for the world is decreasing carbon dioxide emissions. Nanoporous materials can help with carbon dioxide sequestration and improve efficiency of countless chemical processes by opening new frontiers in gas separation. A leader in gas separation, Berend Smit is the Director of the Center for Gas Separations Relevant to Clean Energy Technologies and a Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He recently shared his insights with Jaroslaw Syzdek, a member of the newsletter editorial board.
Gas separation is a very traditional field of chemical engineering. How did this field get your attention and that of the Department of Energy? Recent advances in the synthesis of novel porous media − particularly metal-organic frameworks or MOFs − with enormous chemical tunability make it very interesting to revise this field.
What is the incentive to study these materials? At present, gas separation costs an enormous amount of energy, so there is a great incentive to study MOFs that would allow us to do it much more efficiently. Of course, the most striking example of gas separation is carbon capture. If we could efficiently separate carbon dioxide from the gases released after burning the coal in air, or separate oxygen and nitrogen so that we burn coal directly in oxygen, large-scale carbon dioxide sequestration would be far less expensive and, hopefully, rapidly applied on a large scale. And, that would directly transpose into lowering the greenhouse effect.
How do you see gas separations beyond carbon dioxide? Well, most chemical processes require some kind of gas separation, so advances in MOF technology would allow energy and cost savings there as well.
How did you get involved in this field and research in general? I learned what research was only when I went to college. After my master’s degree, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, I did doctoral research at Shell Research Laboratories with the University of Utrecht. I spent 9 years studying catalytic reactions and separation of hydrocarbons using zeolites, a type of nanoporous ceramic. When my scientific interests started to deviate from the interest of the company, I went back to academia and eventually became director of the EFRC and moved to Berkeley, California.
Research is very rewarding; however, the reward for success is usually more work. It is easy to get overloaded, and you really need to prioritize, select the best opportunities, and stay focused.
What does it take to be a director of an EFRC? The Department of Energy is very generous in support, but they expect the director of the EFRC to be really committed to the topic. So as a director, I need to make sure that my research is fully aligned with the EFRC. The biggest responsibility is to allow the people working in the EFRC to do excellent research and not get distracted by anything that has to do with running the EFRC.
How do you facilitate team work and keep the center focused? We spent some time initially defining a few systems for synthesis, characterization, and theory. Because we work on the exact same materials, we have to interact. This makes the running of the EFRC easier. We can just concentrate on solving the scientific problems because the interactions are intrinsically there. Synergy is very nice, but for the Ph.D. students that are doing the research, it needs to make sense. There is no point in talking every week with a colleague if your projects have nothing in common.
What excites you about working for the center? I think that doing research in the EFRC is exciting because it boosts the collaboration between various researchers and research institutions. I have experienced science in both academia and industry; hence, our advisory board is almost entirely composed of researchers from industry. We got some criticism because of that. We responded that we know the academic side, but we don’t know the applied side. Having an external point of view, significantly different from the academic one makes this enterprise more likely to be successful and bring fundamental science that may have the potential to contribute to a new, much more efficient process for carbon capture.
We think of the EFRC as a place of developing new fundamental science. Once in a while there might be a new material that actually is very promising for application. We are making sure we have the right contacts so that these ideas can be taken out of the EFRC and given a follow up to see whether these materials can be applied on an industrial scale.
What’s your advice for those starting out in the scientific fields? When I lecture on thermodynamics, I can either make it easy by providing recipes for calculating this or that. Or I can show the beauty of the subject, but then you have to understand the fundamentals, which make it tougher. I think that working in the scientific field is that way. You can take the easy way, but you miss the beauty and greater perspective.