Tackling Energy Issues with Nanotechnology: A Conversation with Leonardo Spanu

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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