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Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry

Professor Erwin Reisner head shot

Professor Erwin Reisner, courtesy Cambridge Festival

Professor Erwin Reisner will show how his group is developing ways to turn carbon dioxide, biomass and plastic waste into precious resources to underpin a solar-powered economy at his Open Day lectures in the Wolfson Theatre on Saturday 16 March.

In "Capturing sunlight for a sustainable future" Reisner will make a case for solar energy and the need--and growing ability--to produce sustainable fuels and chemicals for energy storage, transportation and the chemical industry.

Reisner is an expert in renewable energy and sustainable chemistry, in particular the sunlight-powered production of sustainable fuels and platform chemicals. His laboratory is developing emerging technologies and demonstrating innovative prototype devices for the solar-powered conversion of waste, water and air into practical fuels and chemicals.

It was announced this week that Reisner is one of three Cambridge professors to be awarded a prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies. The £2.5million award will enable him to focus on developing a technology called solar reforming to application in a strategic manner for up to ten years. Solar reforming uses only waste, water and air to harness sunlight to produce green hydrogen fuel and chemicals to help decarbonise the transport and chemical sectors.

What are you hoping audiences will take away from your lecture at the Cambridge Festival?

My feeling is that there is not yet a strong enough public awareness of the critical role that chemistry must play in our ambition to meet net zero targets. We are all familiar with renewable electricity, wind energy, electric vehicles etc but the most difficult part is still to come - making renewable fuels and transitioning the chemical industry sector.

This will affect all of us with everything we do and use, from the plastic bottles we drink from, to the chair we are sitting in. All these things need to be made renewable or at least in a circular manner and chemistry is at the very centre of this because we need to develop the catalysts to drive the required sustainable processes.

That's very exciting for me as a chemist as it provides so many opportunities and I think it's also important that the public is aware that there are really new technologies being developed in chemical laboratories right now. I want to explain to the public that chemistry is exciting and a subject that really can solve the most important problems our society faces today and I will highlight the vast entrepreneurial opportunities available to develop sustainable chemical technologies. What’s different about the technologies emerging from The Reisner Laboratory? The technologies we’re developing really are fundamentally novel. This means we're not simply improving existing technologies; we’re working on totally new concepts and creating things that haven't been thought of before.

It means it can be challenging to describe them to people because they are such new ideas and emerging technologies that people are not familiar with. For example, we can all relate to technologies around batteries because we already learn in school how a battery works. But the kinds of devices my team are building are very different, they’re brand-new concepts not seen before.

In this lecture, we’ll be presenting our vision and will demonstrate these devices as early-stage prototypes. There will also be a separate, hands-on session where children and interested adults can attend and play with prototypes as well.

Could you share an example of one of these technologies?

At the moment, most things we use and consume are derived from fossil fuels so we need to think about something that can replace those fossil fuels as soon as possible.

All our chemistry starts from the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, biomass waste and plastic waste and the ways that we can use that waste using sunlight to make renewable energy carriers and sustainable materials. For example, I will demonstrate a way of converting a plastic water bottle into green hydrogen as a fuel by adding only a catalyst and shining sunlight - that’s just one example of many.

We are really working on ways we can redesign and rebuild our entire economy and our chemical industry in a sustainable manner and replace fossil fuels to enable a sustainable future on our plant.

How do you feel about being awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies?

The generous long-term support provided by the Royal Academy of Engineering will be the critical driver for our ambitions to engineer, scale and ultimately commercialise our solar chemical technology. The timing for this support is perfect, as my team has recently demonstrated several prototypes for upcycling biomass and plastic waste using sunlight, and we have excellent momentum to grasp the opportunities arising from developing these new technologies. I also hope to use this Chair to leverage further support to establish a circular chemistry centre in Cambridge to tackle our biggest sustainability challenges.

What do you see happening in your field in 10 years?

What I'm most enthusiastic about from a practical point of view is the conversion of plastic and biomass waste into green fuels and chemicals because our processes are uniquely well suited to do this and our way to upcycle waste is very complementary and different from established routes to do it.

Of course, there are known ways to recycle but it’s quite different from our technology and we can take care of waste streams that are currently not manageable by conventional routes.

How will the technologies you're developing impact us in our day-to-day lives?

I think one of the big advantages and unique characteristics of the technologies we’re working on is that small scale applications are very feasible. For example, at the moment with oil, there are huge, centralised facilities but with our technology nothing holds people back from generating their own energy remotely, with just a little solar power that will generate you hydrogen for heating and provides you with the feedstocks you need. And there are many different applications, for example in the agricultural world farmers could use solar sunlight powered solutions to make their own fertiliser in a green way.

We also think they could be used particularly well in developing countries. Dirty cooking causes 3 to 4,000,000 deaths per year and it’s a massive issue, so if we can deliver a device that makes clean hydrogen and people cook with hydrogen, there will be no pollution and an early, positive impact for developing countries would be significant improvements in health.

This article has been adapted from a Speaker Spotlight that was originally published on the Cambridge Festival website