Interview with Lourdes Vega

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Lourdes F. Vega, Head of R+D at Carburos Metálicos, CEO at MATGAS, Group leader in the “Uses of CO2” group (PTECO2)

 

Let’s start with CO2; this is a gas who got a really bad press for being one of the major compounds to cause the “greenhouse effect” and climate change. After all, it is only a consequence of human activity itself. How may we overturn such a view?

Easily enough: by knowing this gas well. In spite of its bad press, carbon dioxide is an odourless, colourless, non-toxic and non-flammable gas abundantly present in nature. Given its properties it is a compound that may be clearly beneficial for society, and this is why it is used in already-existing processes where it replaces products with a bigger potential for environmental damage (such as, e.g., chlorine derivatives) and generates a significant economic return.

CO2 is present in our daily life: we even eat it and drink it. To give a few examples, CO2 is present in carbonated drinks such as coke, as well as in beer, soda water, salads packaged under a modified atmosphere, fire extinguishers in garages… in conclusion, it is a part of our daily life, and it is contained in products that improve our health and our quality of life.

Nevertheless, the bad press it got in the last few years has been due the surplus of CO2 present in the atmosphere as compared to the levels that were present during the industrial revolution, and the constant increase in its levels as a consequence of human activity. A way to change such a negative view of CO2 is by working hard and supporting the development of technologies that permit its capture, treatment and use, as well as a safe storage of the surplus. At the same time, we should search for energy sources that generate less CO2 and are more efficient.

 

Use or CO2 is one of the priority lines of action in the European Union, in the context of its sustainability programmes. A working group was created within the SusChem platform in order to foster the use of CO2 as a raw material. Do you consider this to be a good way to change commonly held views, as we mentioned above?

Indeed, the European Union launched a specific programme for CO2 utilization among those to be funded in 2015, and others that indirectly tackled CO2 utilization had previously been launched. This initiative, along with several others, may not only help change our perceptions but also find other industrial applications. Nevertheless, this is not the first major initiative in the area. Back in 2008, the Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnológico Indstrial (CDTI; Centre for Industrial Technological Development), belonging to the former Ministerio de Investigación y Ciencia (Ministry for Research and Science) in Spain, approved and partially funded the flagship project CENIT SOST-CO2 that focused on searching new sustainable industrial uses for CO2. The project, led by Carburos Metálicos, had a budget of 26.4 million Euros, and it was co-funded by companies and the CDTI. 14 Spanish companies and 31 public-private research centers played an active role in it. As a result of the project, 15 patents were obtained for new uses and 25 commercial products were made available, among other achievements.

Besides, the SUSCHEM initiative to create this working group strengthens the work that had already been done by the plataforma Española del CO2 (PTECO2) within the working group of Uses of CO2 which was created a few years ago and which I am honoured to lead. This week a Meeting was held in Madrid, “Aportando valor al CO2” (Giving value to CO2), coorganized by the working groups on uses of CO2 in the platforms; the meeting was attended by more than 90 participants from companies and universities. An outlook on the technologies for CO2 use in Spain (those currently in use as well as those under development) was offered, which was quite promising. All the efforts being made in that sense to ensure that society is well informed are an excellent initative that should be fostered.

 

Which are the most prominent applications in CO2 utilization?

Given the harmless nature of CO2, this gas (after proper treatment) has been used for years in many industrial processes, in particular in the agro-food sector. Its first major industrial use was its addition to carbonated drinks, such as coke, etc. Apart from that, it should be taken into account that CO2 possesses bacteriostatic and fungistatic properties (it slows down the growth of bacteria and fungi). Such properties may be used in a beneficial manner for food conservation, which increases their shelf life. To that end, food is packaged under a modified atmosphere (an atmosphere with a different concentration of gases than that found in air) and CO2 is added in the proper concentrations to achieve a beneficial effect. Thus, we may find it in packaged goods such as salads, meat, fish, processed baked goods, cooked products… In other areas, carbon dioxide is used in food debugging, water treatment, caffeine extraction from coffee or biomass generation from microalgae growth. CO2 is also used to improve production in greenhouses by means of the so-called CO2 fertilization, which is based in the capacity of certain plants to increase their productivity when high CO2 concentrations are present.

This may be the most widely known applications, but other industrial applications are also available, and they are even used at a larger scale. This is the case of urea production for fertilizers (with a worldwide capacity of 143 Mt/year, where 105 Mt of CO2 are fixed), the production of acetylsalicylic acid (the precursor of aspirin) and polycarbonate production, to name a few. Many other CO2 applications are avaible in which CO2, even if it goes back to the atmosphere, replaces other compounds which are more environmentally harmful.

 

The group Air Products (to which Carburos Metálicos) belongs, has recently stated that the R+D center in Bellaterra is one of the benchmark centers of the group. What does it mean to you as the leader of so excellent a center? And what does it mean for the center itself?

Belonging to the network of R+D centers of Air Products is an important reward for the work done all over these years by the research team of Carburos Metálicos. I am proud to belong to a R+D center like this one, in which we developed solutions that have been applied and are still being applied by our clients. Seeing how our work is materialized in services and products that add value to the company itself and to our clients while helping them be more efficient, sustainable and competitive is really rewarding.

 

We are laying out sustainable solutions for real problems currently faced by our society. But are there enough resources to implement them? (R+D+i funding, sufficient degree of Administration involvement, etc.)

Obviously, most of the resources we use are obtained from private funding, given that the strategy of a multinational company as Air Products includes devoting resources and efforts to research in order to find added-value solutions for our clients. But it should also be mentioned that we have also worked, and continue to do so, in projects with public-private funding, such as the CENIT SOST-CO2 project we mentioned above, as well as other projects in consortium. These include the NUCLI BioQuim_rescue project, co-funded by ACCIO (Generalitat de Catalunya) and FEDER Funds, in which we work with three companies and research groups (MATGAS among them) searching for integral solutions for the treatment of recalcitrant pollutants in water.

Public-private partnership is a key aspect when it comes to moving faster in the development of technologies that reach the market, searching for a complementary approach between the private and public areas. By promoting it, we brighten the future prospects of research in our country, as well as the development of innovative technologies that place our industry on an equal footing with more developed countries. Unfortunately, in the last few years there has been a reduction in support by public administrations, and it is my hope and wish to get it back in the not-too-distant future.

 

Going on with sustainability, Air Products is included in the DowJones Sustainability Index, as a reward for its work in favour of environmental protection. It is also included in the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project’s Leadership Index). How long ago were they included in both Indexes? What does this mean to the Company?

Air Products has been included in the DJSI World Index for four years in a row (2011-2014). As for the CDP Global Disclosure Leadership Index, the company was included in it for the last three years in a row. It had also been included previously, but not for several years in a row.

For Air Products, being included in these indexes means that sustainability is a significant core value in our company’s growth, and an essential element in our relationships with our clients, stakeholders, the 20.000 employees in the group and the hundreds of communities where we work all over the world.

Many of our clients also consider sustainability a key factor; therefore, such acknowledgements help us build confidence towards our programmes, as well as responsibility in all our activities. Belonging to the indexes also strengthens our long-term commitment to sustainability, given that Air Products provides sustainable solutions and applications that bring added value to their clients, thus contributing to their being more efficient and sustainable.

Details about sustainability in our company are publicly available on our website focused on Sustainability (in English).

 

You have led a very active professional life, and you have been in academy (university professor), the scientific world and the business world. Where do you feel more at ease?

I liked all of them, as all of them helped me grow and improve, both from a professional and from a personal point of view. Moreover, difficulties and challenges were to be faced in all of them as well, which meant I needed to keep active. Moving from one world to the other is no easy task, but it is definitively worth it. What was more important for me was the possibility to develop technologies and applications that could contribute to benefit society and improve our quality of life, as well as the possibility to train people who could be the leaders of tomorrow. The vision obtained in any of these worlds is a complement to the vision obtained in the other. Finding good mentors and good friends has also helped me a lot. 

 

You currently combine business and scientific areas in your work, and you do so in an excellent manner… achieving this balance does not seem easy.

It is not! But I think it is worth the effort. As I mentioned before, I love doing research and moving forward. I should also mention that I am a practical person. Research is a constant source for becoming inspired and treating with experts; digging deep down in several subjects is helpful when searching for new solutions. The scientific method and its rigour are also helpful when it comes to developed applications being based on firm ground. Nevertheless, we should not forget that, as a company, we want the high-level research we are doing to foster the development and commercialization of new products. From my point of view, both approaches are not at odds; what’s more, they complement each other, as can be seen in the Freshline® Superfresh technology we recently launched in the market.

 

Last May, you were awarded the 2013 Excellence award, granted by the RSEF and the Fundación BBVA. What did this prize mean to you?

From a personal point of view, the best of receiving this award was the tangible presence of the heartfealt joy of so many people that have supported me all over these years, and who supported me as well so that I could be given this award. It was wonderful. A person never walks on her own: personal effort, as well as effort and support by key people all over the way, are essential, as it is having an excellent work team. From a professional point of view, this was a significant recognition to the effort we mentioned above on keeping a balance between a career in science and a career in business, as a well as the acknowledgement that it is possible to reach that balance (and sometimes it is even appreciated!). I would encourage other people to follow this pathway. I am really grateful to Fundación BBVA, to the Real Sociedad Española de Física (Spanish Society for Physics) and to all my colleagues for this award.

 

By Ana Crespo