Last week Prof Hammarström published a Perspective in Chem, on the important roles of catalysis and solar fuels in meeting our future energy needs. One of our favorite quotes from Prof Hammarström’s piece is:
“The challenges and opportunities for solar fuels are great, and we need a long-term and cross-disciplinary commitment of research and development to make this a reality.”
As a member and leader of the Swedish Consortium for Artificial Photosynthesis (CAP), Prof Hammarström knows very well the importance and benefits of cross-disciplinary research. Research done within the Swedish Consortium covers nearly all aspects of artificial photosynthesis. From studying photosynthesis itself to mutating photosynthetic organisms to synthesizing and probing systems inspired by nature, no avenue is left unexplored in CAP. Additionally, CAP consists of biologist, biophysicist, molecular biologist, microbial chemists, synthetic chemists, computational chemists, and chemical physicists. Much of the scientific community considers consortia like CAP to be the epitome of a cross-disciplinary organization.
A follow-up to Prof Hammarström’s publication, from Georgia State University and Northwestern University, further states that to make solar fuels a commercial reality scientists will need to look beyond the physical and biological sciences and involve social scientists in their cross-disciplinary efforts to ensure technological developments receive favorable support from the public and policymakers.
“Without public support, solar energy technologies are unlikely to succeed in the political and economic marketplace.”
Public opinion indeed plays a significant role in a technology’s market success and the policies surrounding it. The authors, based on research data, point out clearly that “solar” is becoming more widespread and acceptable. This is great news for wider adoption and favorable policies toward cleaner energy. However, we would like to point out that the traditional “solar cell” (i.e. photovoltaic) that produces electricity is a mature technology. Solar fuels, on the other hand, still have many significant technical hurdles, as summarized by Prof. Hammarström, and they won’t be overcome just by “public acceptance.”
As we’ve learned from the “ozone hole” and the ratification of the Montreal Protocol at the turn of the last century, “good science yields good policy.” If one thinks of renewable energy and fuels as products that citizens of the world can soon choose from, we’d add “good science yields good products.” Ideally, the development of the science and subsequent technologies will proceed concurrently with social science and public policy research.
Even this simplified view of the creation of a successful solar fuels industry neglects an equally important third component, financing. The roles entrepreneurs and investors play in developing and sustaining this new market add another facet to this complex problem. We are not alone in thinking this. The creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition in 2015 by some of the wealthiest (and perhaps clearest-thinking and most patient) business leaders in the world addresses this investment “gap” head-on: Carbon-free energy “will result from a dramatically scaled up public research pipeline linked to truly patient, flexible investments…”
At SOFI we see all of these challenges, and we believe that each has a significant impact on how successful solar fuels technologies will be in both the near term and years down the road. However, a multipronged attack is essential in accelerating the technology development, improving public perception, and increasing business vitality. SOFI is uniquely positioned to facilitate communication and collaboration between these three worlds. We view this confluence as an opportunity for each division to focus their resources, apply their expertise, and work together through SOFI. This allows physical and biological scientists to focus on the technological challenges, social scientists to develop models and sound policies, and businesses to find value in the creation of this market.