‘The techniques for the energy transition are not there yet’
More focus on the natural sciences in Utrecht sustainability research
At Utrecht University, interdisciplinary research into a sustainable future comes together in Pathways to Sustainability. To do justice to the natural sciences in this strategic theme, Professor René van Roij together with several colleagues from the Faculties of Science and Geosciences initiated the community Science for Sustainability a year ago. "In doing so, we strengthen the enormous potential of the natural sciences to solve sustainability issues. They may not always be about solutions for tomorrow, but definitely about solutions for long-term challenges."
A hundred years ago, physicists such as Heisenberg and Schrödinger laid the foundation for quantum mechanics. At the time, it was an academic exercise, and no one could predict whether the research would ever be of use to society. Only decades later, in 1947, it turned out it did, for instance when multinational IBM built the first transistors. These turned out to be the key building blocks for modern computers. By now, laptops and cell phones have become an indispensable part of society. According to Van Roij, this example nicely illustrates how essential the natural sciences are and how their applicability cannot always be predicted. "The foundations for today's computers were laid a hundred years ago," he says. "And back then no one could have foreseen that."
I often get the impression that the energy transition is primarily considered to be an implementation issue, with all the techniques readily developed and available
Sustainability research in Utrecht
With the Science for Sustainability community, Van Roij, a physicist by background, is giving the natural sciences a firmer position in Utrecht's research into a sustainable future. Such research unites under the strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability. Scientists coming from a range of disciplines, from law to economics to social sciences, are thinking together about solutions to challenges we are facing, including warming of the oceans and atmosphere, rising sea levels, producing and storing renewable energy, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of soil, water and air.
The natural sciences could use extra attention within this Utrecht-based research, Van Roij believes. "I often get the impression that the energy transition is primarily considered to be an implementation issue, with all the techniques readily developed and available," he says. “However, that is not true in all cases. There are plenty of pressing and future problems for which current developments in the natural sciences will prove to be vital. Perhaps as vital as quantum mechanics has been for the development of computers." Examples include developments in materials science with scientists working on innovative materials that can cool buildings and remove CO2 from the air, or developments in inorganic chemistry where new catalysts are being designed that will make the energy sector more sustainable.
Another example: "If you project the growth of the energy consumption of data centers to 20 years into the future, by then computers will consume essentially all of the electric energy we generate today. That may not be a direct issue, but it will be in the intermediate term," Van Roij says. "Brain-inspired computing could potentially contribute to a solution. It is a way of processing information inspired by the brain that is fundamentally different from current information processing techniques. As such, it is much more energy efficient. This is still very fundamental research, and we don't know what the actual result will be. But if we don't investigate it, it could be a missed opportunity."
To store hydrogen safely and efficiently, we need to understand and be able to predict how the subsurface reacts
Behavior of rocks
Suzanne Hangx is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Geosciences and joined the community board six months ago. She too believes that the natural sciences are essential to the energy transition and other sustainability issues. "I believe, earth science research is necessary for the responsible storage of hydrogen in the deeper subsurface", she argues.
"To use renewable energy on days when the sun doesn't shine as much or the wind doesn't blow as much, we're looking for ways to convert that energy into hydrogen and store it. The only place where we have enough space for this is underground, at a depth of a few kilometers," she explains. "However, storing hydrogen underground is a very different way of dealing with the subsurface than we are used to. And to do this safely and efficiently, we need to understand and be able to predict how the subsurface reacts. This requires more knowledge of how the subsurface works, and in the earth sciences, we are experts in studying this. One of the aspects we investigate is how rocks behave as a result of this kind of human activity."
Eight PhD positions
An important achievement of the community in the past year is the S4S graduate program. That program consists of eight PhD positions for students who have written their own proposal for research in the field of sustainability. One requirement is that the research be interdisciplinary in nature: it must bring together at least two scientific disciplines. In 2022, the first four PhD candidates started their research. The next four will start this calendar year.
Implementation and technology
In addition, Van Roij and Hangx are now focusing on bringing together researchers from the other Pathways to Sustainability communities. The idea is that dialogue will ensure that the natural sciences on the one hand and the social, legal and economic sciences on the other are better aligned. Because if you know about each other's work, you can find out if you can complement each other’s work. "The road to a sustainable society is not only an implementation issue, but of course not a purely technological challenge either," Van Roij believes. "It would be good if scientists from all disciplines fully realize this."
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