Ending Energy Poverty: Chemistry's Contribution

Ending Energy Poverty: Chemistry's Contribution

Author: Javier Garcia Martinez

An Achievable Legacy for the International Year of Chemistry

The sad thing about celebrations is that they all come to an end and when the lights are off and the party is over, the feeling is that everything was just a happy dream that now is over. Something similar may happen to “International Years” that take place on subjects as varied as those promoted by United Nations. The lack of continuity between them and their small legacy are two frequent criticisms of such commemorations.

However, the 2011 International Year of Chemistry has the opportunity of having a long lasting legacy by carrying one of its core messages, “the role of chemistry in managing natural resources sustainably”, into the 2012 International Year of Sustainable Energy to All. Koïchiro Matsuura, former Director-General of UNESCO, said when 2011 was declared as the IYC: “It is certain that chemistry will play a major role in developing alternative energy sources and in feeding the world’s growing population”.

Providing sustainable energy to the seven billion inhabitants of the planet today is not a small task. One person in five in the world still lacks access to electricity. Twice that number — three billion people — rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating. In industrialized countries the problem is waste because of inefficient energy use. Chemistry has a lot to contribute to both the energy-poor and energy-abundant worlds with solutions that involve cleaner energy production, efficient electricity storage, and transforming today’s waste into tomorrow’s energy source.

Ending energy poverty is a noble goal that will not be achieved by incremental innovations. Improving what we have now will not do the job. Thousands of chemists around the world work with engineers, physicists and material scientists to radically change energy production, for example, by using nanomaterials and polymers for the solar cells of the future, which are lighter, more efficient, and free of expensive silicon. Progress in coordination and materials chemistry is enabling dramatic advances in water-splitting, which hold the promise of producing hydrogen from water using only sunlight, a process known by the inspiring name of artificial photosynthesis. These are just a few examples of the many contributions of chemistry ingenuity to clean energy, an increasingly popular topic in chemistry journals and at conferences.

Chemistry can help us make smarter use of today’s main energy production sources like gas, coal, and petroleum. Better, cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels will allow us to use them as chemical feedstock for the production of higher value products instead of just burning them. The combination of some old processes like Fischer–Tropsch, coal gasification, and methane reforming with advances in nanotechnology, catalysis, and process engineering is opening up new opportunities for fossil fuels in the chemical industry. Similarly, in the last year more and more chemists have started considering biomass not only as a source of biofuels for combustion engines, but an ideal source of platform molecules for the synthesis of degradable bioplastics, cleaner solvents, and personal care. An even more ambitious, and technically challenging goal is the use of CO2 as a chemical feedstock for platform molecules, as clean solvent, or in the production of polymers such as polycarbonates, polythiocarbonates, and polyurethanes.

But even if the source of energy is “clean” and renewable or even “inexhaustible”, like sun radiation, the materials that we are using today to build the sustainable energy of tomorrow are very much depletable (even scarce). Their extraction and processing can also require a lot of energy or water. Our wind turbines and hybrid cars need rare earth minerals. Although rare earths are actually fairly common, mining them is rarely profitable. China has most of the world reserves, producing over 97 % of the global rare earth supply — an advantageous position that it uses to control the market of these strategic minerals. Lithium, a key component of modern rechargeable Li-ion batteries common in consumer electronics, is another depletable component of our “clean solutions”. Although it is found in many rocks and some brines, concentrations are always very low. Lithium is also highly unequally distributed, being found mainly in Bolivia, most notably in the ecologically fragile salt flats of Salar de Uyun, which contain 50 to 70 % of the world’s lithium reserves.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, is a golden opportunity to place chemistry as a key enabler in the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. As Heads of State and Government and other representatives at the highest level will gather in Rio next June, chemists have the opportunity to present our legacy to the World. Chemistry has a fundamental role in supplying energy, water, food, health, and shelter to billions of people. Without chemistry the ambitious goals of the new green economy to all will be impossible. Education, basic research, investment in R&D, proper safety and regulation, public-private partnerships, and scalability must be part of the discussion, and chemists should be part of it.

Javier Garcia MartinezJavier Garcia Martinez is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and leads the Laboratory of Molecular Nanotechnology at the University of Alicante, Spain. He is the founder of Rive Technology, an MIT spin-off commercializing nanomaterials for energy applications.

His research focuses on mesoporous materials and their modification with metal complexes and nanoparticles to improve their catalytic performance and reusability. He also works on mesoporous zeolites for refining applications and nanomaterials for catalysis, photocatalysis and energy storage.

Garcia Martinez is vice-chair of the World Economic Forum General Assembly Council on Emerging Technologies and a member of Bureau of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC).

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