Almost every commodity, from detergents to penicillin to fertilizer, is produced industrially through catalysts, substances introduced to speed up chemical reactions. Yet as indispensable as they are, many catalysts used in industry today create significant environmental waste and economic inefficiency. The Technion’s soon to be established Center for Sustainable Processes and Catalysis aims to discover novel, green catalysts from naturally abundant elements so that industrial processes will require less energy and become more sustainable.

Distinguished Professor Ilan Marek, chair of the Center, spoke at the ATS Presidential Forum in March 2022 along with clean energy specialists Assistant Professor Charlotte Vogt and Associate Professor Matthew Suss. The trio was interviewed by ATS National BOD member David Rosenblatt, vice chairman and founder of Arava Power, about the magic of catalysis and the Center’s plans.

David Rosenblatt: Charlotte, people assume we need to go green to keep the Earth sustainable for our children and grandchildren. What does sustainability mean in practical terms? Would we need to reduce consumption?

Charlotte Vogt: I look to the near future, 20 to 30 years from now, and see two scenarios. In the first, we rely completely on breakthrough technology. But a more realistic scenario is one that is more reliant on legislation to curb the emission of CO2, and less on breakthroughs, and it will be a mix. There’s going to be some solar, some biomass, and still some fossil fuels. Almost everything from purses to curtains, shag rugs, epoxy, you name it, is made from crude oil. There is a chance there are going to be things that can more efficiently be made using crude oil. Utilizing or storing emissions wisely and switching our electricity supply to renewables are key.

DR: Ilan, is it possible to create a sustainable planet when many countries do not cut carbon emissions proportionately to us or offset their carbon through renewable energy sources?

Ilan Marek: That is indeed a real issue, but we have some responsibilities towards the new generations, the generation of our children, of our grandchildren. At some point, one has to start and help the world to be a better place. In the last century, science and technologies have drastically improved our quality of life but we also have created a situation that is not sustainable anymore. Each one of us should be concerned and correct our mistakes, and in the pure Jewish tradition, we need to do our best to repair our world. Let us be a role model, to show the path to a better world, and I am convinced that subsequently, many will follow.

DR: Matthew, you discussed integrating solar energy into the national grid. Since the intermittent nature of renewables causes new issues for grids, will transitioning to green energy be delayed as we wait for investments and build-outs of the grid to be completed?

Matthew Suss: In order to transition to the majority of electricity being supplied by renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, we will need to modify the grid to include low-cost energy storage. However, we’re fairly far from this goal, as in the U.S. solar and wind account for just over 10% of all electricity generated. In the meantime, there is room for renewable energy to continue to grow as grid-scale storage solutions are developed.

DR: Ilan, faced with these difficult challenges, can you tell us what’s in store for the soon to be established Center for Catalysis and Sustainable Processes?

IM: We’re creating a center in which scientists from many and diverse disciplines will be working at the same place, mixing knowledge and expertise to solve the global issues of sustainability. A single powerhouse making new catalysts for different topics with applications that will be transferred to the real world.

This Center will be an incubator of young talents recruited worldwide from various disciplines. They would spend seven years working side by side at the Center, and then return with an enriched perspective to their individual faculty. This is something unique in Israel. The building will have state-of-the-art equipment and will be constructed with plenty of open spaces for people to share ideas. Think of it as a bottle of champagne. When you shake it and pop the cork, you have bubbles everywhere. That’s exactly what we want to do. We’ll create a place where faculty will come with brilliant ideas and rotate in and out. It will never be a static system.

DR: Charlotte, why is the Technion well suited for this type of center?

CV: The Technion has a long track record in developing groundbreaking technologies and is already doing research in the field of catalysis. What’s particularly special for me is that in addition to working on incremental improvements to existing processes ­­— which is important — the Technion encourages you to just play around in the lab and see what comes out. This produces breakthroughs because by definition, a true breakthrough can only come if you don’t know what you’re working towards. I also want to see the technology we come up with implemented to help make the world a better place, and the Technion has a robust T3 (Technion Technology Transfer) program.

DR: Matthew, what does success look like for the future in terms of sustainability and the impact of the Technion Center 10 years from now?

MS: One important goal is that solar and wind power account for 50% or more of the total electricity generated. Why can’t we go entirely with renewables? It’s because renewable energy is intermittent ­­— generated only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. So you need to store that energy in batteries to be able to deliver it at times of low electricity production. In my lab, we’re exploring innovative catalysts to create long-lasting, inexpensive batteries that store clean energy on a large scale. We have Israeli and EU funding and are collaborating with various companies such as Shell to develop a promising hydrogen-bromine battery. The Center for Catalysis and Sustainable Processes has the interdisciplinary vision, talented people, and mandate to make major contributions to energy storage solutions widely implemented in 10 years.