In February, Phil De Luna, who directs the National Research Council of Canada’s (NRC) new Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge Program, attended Globe 2020, a business and innovation event dedicated to sustainable technologies. The Vancouver-based conference, which is now in its 30th year, touts itself as the largest such summit in North America, drawing participants from nearly 100 countries around the world.
What was GLOBE 2020 like?
It was a fantastic place to meet people. It was very diverse in terms of sector, age, and background — one moment you’re speaking with a venture capitalist and the next moment you’re speaking with someone who’s working on wildlife preservation and ecology. But there was a lot of the same messaging that I’ve heard before and not as much of the deep learning or interesting new insights. We all know what the problems are; what we were there for was to think about how to make solutions and remove these barriers.
What were you doing there?
I moderated a panel on carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), the area where I work at the NRC. It was a really interesting conversation around CCUS and what are the opportunities, what are the challenges, what are the levers we need to move this forward. Kate Chisholm, vice-president of the Edmonton-based utility firm Capital Power, was really excited about how her company was investing in CO2 conversion with carbon nanotubes, for example. Another panelist was Beth Hardy, Vice-President of Strategy and Stakeholder Relations at the International CCS Knowledge Centre, a research arm established by Sask Power and BHP Billiton. She gave a great overview of what it takes to get a large project up and running in Canada, and the barriers there.
Even more interesting was Eric Redman, the co-chairman of the Summit Power Group, a Seattle-based developer of CCS power plants. He gave a very frank and captivating description of his career and how everything was lined up for two massive CCS projects in Texas and the UK. The one in Texas fell through because of a change in the US leadership. The one in the UK fell through because of Brexit. This was hundreds of millions of dollars in projects that were ready to go. You could hear the sadness in his story.
What kind of dynamics were there in the discussions?
I experienced first-hand what happens when you highlight the different stands you could take and how people become polarized. At one point, one of the panelists jokingly made the tongue-in-cheek remark that the voting age should be raised to 40 because of the way youth anger affected voting patterns. I added to her remarks, suggesting that it was necessary for young people to understand these technical issues and come prepared to have a thoughtful conversation. After that session I was approached by a young lady who objected to my position and then by a young man who thanked me for defending youth and explaining how complex these topics are. It was my first time in this situation. I didn’t think it was very controversial, but others did. It gave me a taste of what it must be like to be a government minister!
What did that reveal about the debates that take place over these complicated topics?
A lot of young people are at a pivotal point in their lives, where they may be taking stances without thinking through particular problems. In fact, some of them seem to have hardened their views on important matters such as energy transition, but without demonstrating a willingness to delve into its complexities. They are demanding change without fully knowing or understanding what change means, and above all, what must be done to accomplish it. I don’t think there are enough people saying to them, ‘yes, do that, but be literate when you do it’. When you do it in a way that is respectful, people take you seriously. Shouting without substance is not speech – it is just spectacle.
You’re fairly young yourself — how have you approached this kind of challenge?
Through hard work and ambition, I have earned my place at the decision-making table, where I have some sympathy and understanding for the weight carried by those with the power to act. I’ve spent my entire adult life on the bleeding edge of the energy transition, developing clean technologies. I’ve studied and published in the world’s most esteemed scientific journals like Science and Nature. I’ve battled to the finals of the $20 million Carbon XPRIZE, a worldwide competition to capture and convert the most CO2 into a useful good. I serve on an industrial decarbonisation non-profit board and international OECD steering committee.
What are you doing now?
I currently lead an ambitious $57 million clean energy research program as a director at the National Research Council of Canada, where I focus on CO2 conversion, clean hydrogen production, and artificial intelligence for materials discovery. The program is called Materials for Clean Fuels. It’s mission-driven, goal-oriented and it’s collaborative. For the first time in the NRC’s history, we have funds not only to support our own internal national lab, but to pay for collaborators to work with us, so that we can work faster to solve problems together with the best in the world, whether that be academics or start-up companies.
What are some of the technical aspects of this work?
The robotics and AI component will accelerate the discovery of the materials — the catalysts, the membranes — that we would need for CO2 conversion and for hydrogen production. And we’re looking primarily at electrocatalytic CO2 conversion, using renewable electricity. These are technologies that are not traditional and have not been scaled up. With hydrogen production, we’re looking at better ways to do water-splitting or methane pyrolysis, taking natural gas and decompose it into carbon solids and hydrogen. One of the biggest issues with hydrogen production today is that it comes from steam methane reforming, where you heat up methane and steam and you get
CO2 and hydrogen at the end, but this has a lot of emissions. Hydrogen is a very important feedstock — used in fertilizer production, steelmaking, fine chemicals and medicine — so if we could de-carbonize the production of it, that would have a huge impact.
What is your takeaway message from GLOBE 2020, and to those young people who still feel angry and frustrated?
The arc of human progress is beautiful and fascinating. On every metric that counts — infant mortality, population, nutrition, disease — we have made amazing progress. But this is the conundrum that society has to face: we have made that progress on the back of fossil fuels. The way our society is built, and the processes that have proliferated, use energy and industrialization that produces CO2. So we have been able to save the world from a lot of problems, but now we have to find a way to do it sustainably.