By Jessica Mitchell
Save the planet. This is just the motivation that ultimately drives the research of Professor Berend Smit, who says that through his research “in the long term, we may actually save the planet.”
Berend Smit is currently Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and EPFL in Sion, Switzerland. He is also Director of the Energy Centre and Chair of Molecular Simulation at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, as well as Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Energy Research.
A computational quest for novel nanopore materials
Smit leads a team of researchers who use computational methods to screen novel nanoporous materials, known as metal organic frameworks, for their suitability for various energy-related applications- including capturing CO2 from flue gases and storing methane.
These materials are the ideal playgrounds for chemist; by varying the basic chemical constituents we can make millions of different materials, each with its own specific properties. But, as Smit comments, “experimentally, however, because of practical limitations we can only synthesize a small fraction of them.”
By adopting computational techniques, Smit and his team are able to explore the properties of these novel nanoporous materials in silico and assess their potential suitability for various applications.
Nanopore materials for carbon capture
Capturing CO2 is just one of the applications for Smit’s nanoporous materials. We’re all aware of the unrelenting combustion of fossil fuels and the associated CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Consequent concerns regarding changes to our planet’s climate have highlighted the necessity of mitigating CO2 emissions. But beyond the political rhetoric what is actually being done?
One strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions is the development of technologies for carbon capture and storage. The idea is to capture the CO2 emitted from industrial anthropogenic processes, then compress and transport the gas for long-term storage. Through his efforts to discover novel nanoporous materials capable of effectively capturing CO2 at the source of emission, Smit’s research is contributing to the plight against climate change. “Being able to contribute a little bit to the solution is something that really motivates me,” Smit said.
Despite the scientific and technological progress, several obstacles currently limit real-life applications. At present CO2 is a waste product that can be freely emitted by anyone, any technology that cleans up emissions is an added cost to industry.
“Until policy makers implement financial incentives to reduce CO2 emissions, e.g. through carbon taxation, or there is a viable market for captured CO2 use, carbon capture technologies will remain in the realm of academia,” Smit said. “The implementation of these technologies depends on the political decisions to do something about CO2 emissions.”
Frontiers in Energy Research
In addition to his research, Smit is the Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Energy Research, and believes open access can help move science forward. “The idea that research results are free for everybody- free for the public- I think is something every scientist needs to be fully behind. Scientists should publish for everybody,” he said.
With his research, push for better policy and his advocacy of open access, Smit is determined to make changes in order to make the world better. And he just might be able to find a way to save it along the way.