Tackling Energy Issues with Nanotechnology: A Conversation with Leonardo Spanu

[LISA] Welcome to a special 15-year anniversary
episode of Stories from the NNI. I’m Lisa Friedersdorf, Director of the National
Nanotechnology Coordination Office. Today it’s my pleasure to welcome Leonardo
Spanu, Senior Researcher in R&D Chemistry at Shell Corporation, where he
is part of the new Energy Research and Technologies Team. Leonardo, thank you so
much for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how
you first got involved in nanotechnology? [LEONARDO] Yes. So I have a Ph.D. in physics from thie University of Pavia. And I joined Shell about seven years ago
moving from University of California. Some of my early project in Shell mostly
focused on understanding active phases of catalysts developed at Shell by a
combination of simulation, testing, and characterization. Now the chemical
industry, the refinery industry, have been using nanotechnology for almost
centuries without actually knowing it. A lot of catalysts are
actually at the nanoscale. So one of my early project in Shell, we actually tried
to understand this great challenge of connection between morphology,
performance, synthesis. So in a way, Shell and also other chemical and oil and gas
companies have been exposed to nanotechnology for a long time and
designing materials that eventually turn out to be nanomaterials. More recently,
the past three years actually, I focus some of my research activity on nanotechnology
on purpose. So I’m part of a team which is called New Energy Research and
Technology. And we are looking at novel solutions for energy. And there
nanotechnology may play a prominent role by design from the beginning. [LISA] Nanotechnology on purpose is a great phrase. I like that. So, you mentioned that
you’re using nanotechnology in a variety of ways. Can you share a little bit how
you’re using it in New Energy Research and Technology Group? [LEONARDO] So the New Energy
Research and Technology Team was a relatively young team in Shell. And
basically our main mission is to explore and develop technology to provide
energy, fuels, chemicals, with lower carbon footprint. Shell has made a
very important commitment to lower our overall carbon footprint. So we have a
broad portfolio including solar, wind, storage. There are three areas in
particular where we are focusing and we believe novel material based on
nanotechnology may play a role. One is definitely advanced energy storage. So
how we can store some of the energy that has been produced for instance via
renewable energy. Another critical area is how to capture
for instance CO2 from air and convert possibly fuels in chemicals. In
particular my research area is methane to products. So converting natural gas,
methane in particular, into chemicals and materials. [LISA] So can you share how
nanotechnology plays a role in that conversion of methane to other chemicals
and materials? [LEONARDO] Yes. So there are multiple aspects where we believe
nanotechnologies may play a role. One end we have what I would call the
more traditional side, so designing catalysts. They could be selective
possibly creating new chemicals and products again without overall lower CO2
footprint in the conversion process. But also another area of interest is
actually converting the gas itself into nanomaterial. For instance carbon nanomaterials that could be done using two materials at scale. So in some way both
the process and the final product could leverage some of the knowledge that has
been developed in the past 15 years in the broader nanotechnology community. [LISA] What are some of the challenges that you face in the research that
you’re doing and taking them into technologies that are commercially
viable? [LEONARDO] I think one of the, actually I would call it the biggest challenge is
to translate property proven at the nano scale to kiloton, megaton. So how do we
translate discovery on the bench scale into something that could work commercially
at large scale. That’s in my view, that’s the greatest challenge we as a team we
are facing and I think probably we share this challenge with other teams across
industry and also in academia. [LISA] We often hear that that’s a big challenge. I’ll
take the shorthand say scale up, is a really critical challenge facing the
commercialization of nanotechnology. We use what we call the technology
development pathways framework for looking at how research works through
the development cycle into commerce eventually and have drilled down through
workshops and other events at different steps along that technology
development pathway where there’s critical challenges like scale-up.
Another area that we hear is the in-situ quality control, the monitoring tools in
order to do that. Are there other steps along your
technology development pathway that you see there are critical needs for
research to address? [LEONARDO] In some way you have mentioned together with scale up we have
to develop standards for materials. Because once we have developed standards,
we can enforce quality control and consistency at scale. A lot of materials,
and I keep referring to the nanomaterial for instance carbon nanomaterials because it’s an area where I’m more familiar, sometimes they are
producing a semi batch or batch mode and it’s not uncommon to purchase materials
from the same vendors with different properties. And the broader chemical
industry when you purchase specific chemicals from a vendor you know 100% what you are buying, amount of impurities. The specs are well defined. I feel in
certain areas of nanotechnology we haven’t developed sufficient
specifications for the material. Therefore its also how to implement a specific
technology on a product. Because all the time the performance may change. [LISA] I want
to switch gears a little bit and talk about interdisciplinarity. What
intersections have you had in the team that you work with working with
nanotechnology? [LEONARDO] I’ll give you an example of a possible concept that could help
actually decarbonize the energy sector and utilize, for instance, natural gas
especially here in the U.S. Its this concept of moving from natural gas and
converting the natural gas into hydrogen and materials. So for instance you can
start from methane and produce specific form of carbon nanotubes could be assemble into fibers. The fibers eventually will go into a composite and then in a
automotive or space components. Now we have been exploring this option and
in our team we have people from at least six or seven different backgrounds.
You need someone who is able to understand, for instance, the
nanomaterials. What we call the carbon intermediates at the nanoscale. So
typical material scientists. We need someone who is working with composites so
with the end-user on how to place this material into tangible product. We need
traditional engineers with an expertise in reactor design, a team who is able to
characterize this material at the nanoscale, possibly also in situ during the
synthesis conditions. And possibly also folks who are more related to let’s say
the renewable science and electrical engineer, how to bring the renewable
energy into a process in such a way that the overall carbon footprint will be as
low as possible. So in some way, although for
instance nanotubes has been now a 25 years topic, when you want to bring in a
scale when you want to create a commercial process that could actually
generate value, you really need working with that interdisciplinary team is
almost like a must. You cannot escape having several expertise in the same
team in the same room. [LISA] So as you know the NNI is celebrating 15 years since the
21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act was signed into law. And
we’re reflecting on what both scientific and technological and commercial
activities have advanced over that 15 years. From your perspective, could you
share some of the nanotechnology advancements that you’ve been interested
in? [LEONARDO] Yeah I confess there are plenty of discoveries or work that kept me very
excited and motivated in the past 10 years. However, I want to point out one
specific case, but I want to emphasize in my view the greatest contribution of
nanotechnology or all the work that has been done especially in the United
States is to push the boundaries of characterization tools and techniques. So
the moment you have to understand new class of materials at the nanoscale you
are forced as a research team, as a scientist, to develop new tools on how to
look at your experiment, at your materials, or what you are doing at a lab. And obviously the moment a class of tools are developed, then they can be applied also in other fields. So right now to me its always amazing
what we can do with in-situ characterization and the ability of characterize and understanding for instance reactions or
synthesis mechanist as it happens. Another area is blending together the
synthesis part, the characterization part, and also the atomistic simulation. This has been, in my opinion, a great achievement and it has been possible
because there was this broader community working, yes on different topics, but
united by the need of understanding how atoms, how molecules are arranged together at
the nanoscale. [LISA] I know that you’ve mentioned a number of the research
projects that you’re working on and where you see nanotechnology playing a
role from the perspective of an energy company, but looking broadly, or perhaps
narrowly, either way is fine, what are you excited about with respect to the
potential for nanotechnology to address challenges in the future? ]LEONARDO] Well I may be
biased and maybe I’m repeating myself, but for scientists of my generation I
truly believe the energy challenge is the challenge we have to face. So how do
we provide energy with a lower carbon footprint while growing world population?
That’s where I feel nanotechnology maybe could be actually a great enabler. I
cannot point to a single field where I think now technology will solve all of
our problems . The way I see the future is we will have to attack the energy
problem from many angles. So we will have to build a portfolio of solutions and
maybe each of the solutions will change depending on geography, depending on the
population or the specific environment where the technology solution has to
be deployed. It feels like CO2 capture, CO2 conversion into fuel and chemicals,
conversion of natural gas into valuable products, energy storage, there are three
critical areas that if we make progress we can actually have a positive impact on
the overall energy system. And in all these cases mastering and understanding
how to deploy nanotechnology at scale will be crucial. [LISA] I would first like to really thank you again for your time today and ask you if
you have any closing thoughts for the listeners? [LEONARDO] I’m going to repeat myself, but
it’s a message that I want to pass maybe to younger students or people who are
entering this field. Keep exploring the nanoworld, but always think about the
biggest picture. So I think there is a great value in trying to understand where
your new nanomaterials, nanodevices will fit. How you can deploy them, how can
these new nanomaterials can be embedded in a maybe non existing product, or how
you can really make sure that people will leverage or utilize this new piece
of science? So in the past 15 years we have seen amazing science and I truly
believe it now is the moment to see it applied at scale to actually tackle
critical problems like energy and the energy transition. Thank you for joining us today for this
special 15-year anniversary edition of Stories from the NNI. If you would
like to learn more about nanotechnology please visit nano.gov or email us at
[email protected] and check back here for more stories.

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