“The Stone Age did not end because of a lack of stones”
(Sheikh Amehd Zaki Yamani, Arabian Oil Minister in the 1980s)
Eva Pellicer’s CV is long and thick: PhD in Chemistry from UB, Ramón y Cajal Researcher at the Physics Department of the UAB, she was awarded in 2014 by the L’Óreal-Unesco for Women in Science program (national class, for Science of Matter) and the international L’Óreal-Unesco International Rising Talents grant, that she won, as representative for Spain, along with 14 more young researchers from five continents and five recognized scientists.
What implies being such an awarded scientist? Which were the awarded projects?
It’s such a great joy because it gives you a great visibility, to yourself and your work. On the national edition, energy-related projects were awarded – probably by chance. Energy is certainly a key area and great efforts are devoted to it, i.e., the EU funds extensively its Horizon 2020 framework program. Then, on the international edition, projects spanned different disciplines, from research about diseases like cancer or chagas, to projects about telecommunications and the quantum origin of life.
Where will these grants be spent?
To fund a project to synthesize nanometre-sized metal foams for energy purposes – a simile would be a bath sponge. Thanks to the presence of a high number of these tiny pores or nanopores, these materials have a very large surface area, so they suit ideally for catalytic applications – by increasing the chemical reaction rate. The goal of the project is to manufacture these foams by electrochemical technology so the presence of noble metals is minimized – for example, platinum is the Rolex of catalysts. Noble metals are expensive and its sources are scarce. These foams are going to be used as catalysts to generate molecular hydrogen from the reduction of the water molecule. Hydrogen is a ‘green’ energy vector. It is used, for instance, as fuel in cells to generate electricity. The reaction that takes place in these fuel cells generates water as only byproduct, so it is completely harmless.
“Nanoporous materials could be integrated into data storage devices (computers)
so they would cut dramatically their energy consumption”
You studied Chemistry including a PhD. How did you become a researcher at the Department of Physics of the UAB?
I am a chemist, but I have been always interested in materials. Any material can be studied from a more chemical or physical point of view. I mean that you can explore its chemical properties, its physical properties or its physical-chemical properties. My PhD involved the characterization of materials manufactured by electroplating. After the PhD, I joined a group of physicists, and I have been working with physicists since then. I like it because it’s rewarding, since different points of view wrap up when starting a new project, and exotic ideas galore. Nowadays, science is very interdisciplinary.
Talk to us about your research fields, about your interdisciplinary work team. And certainly about those nanoporous materials.
I’m working closely with Jordi Sort, Researcher at ICREA and group leader. The group is formed by a multidisciplinary team of around 15 members (chemists, physicists and engineers). The activity of the group focuses on the design, synthesis and characterization of materials with innovating properties than enable new applications to be developed in engineering. We search for new materials with a microstructure that could be accurately controlled in the nanometer range, thus allowing improving their magnetic, mechanical, optical and thermal properties, as well as their resistance against corrosion. These materials include nanoparticles, nanothreads, micro- and nanostructured objects, mesoporous and nanoporous structures, thin electroplated layers, solid amorphous alloys and nanocompounds. Regarding nanoporous materials, we are searching not only catalytic applications, but also less conventional applications. For instance, nanoporous materials could be integrated into data storage devices (computers) so they would cut dramatically their energy consumption.
Do you think that this technology has the chance to get into the market?
Obviously a good market survey should be made. In my humble opinion, the outlook is positive. Since the idea is to minimize the presence of noble metals in catalysts, production costs would be lowered. Anyway, its commercial use will also depend on their efficiency, i.e., the amount of hydrogen we are able to generate using these catalysts. The main drawback for this kind of hydrogen production is that the supplied energy to produce hydrogen from water (electrolysis) is even higher than the energy obtained by burning hydrogen. The process must be efficient, thus scalable in the industry.
We need a new paradigm, because oil won’t be here forever…
There are people who question whether oil will scarce in the mid-term and who believe that there is no need at all to change the current energy model. For me and many others, this is a must, because the current energy model is neither sustainable nor friendly with the environment. Larry Burns, R&D Vicepresident at General Motors, stated that if we had access to the current technology 100 years ago, surely cars would not use gasoline. Fossil fuel-based energy sources generate many toxic products, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which create the greenhouse effect. Human activity is in part or fully responsible for the climate change and that has been proved not to be the imagination of four crazy scientists.
“The current energy model is neither sustainable
nor friendly with the environment”
Why are women a minority in research?
It’s true that there’s a lower share of women on research, particularly in high positions inside universities, research centres, scientific committees, etc. This proves that many barriers remain and must be overcome, and these translate into an ‘indirect’ lack of opportunities. Many women are progressively excluded from the system when they start a family life. Then there’s also the ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious’ choice of male candidates, who apply for a position, by committees exclusively composed by men. However, I’m convinced that the scenario is going to change because a generational renewal is taking place. There are very interesting initiatives, like that promoted by the L’Oréal-Unesco ‘For Women in Science’ Program to increase the number of biographies of Spanish scientists in Wikipedia, less than 7%! And this low figure is not due to the lack of high-level scientists.
Yours is a particularly notorious case; your life has not been easy at all.
There are people whose lives are much more difficult than mine. At heart I feel lucky, in spite of the hurdles I had to cope with. I have a disease, a rheumatoid arthritis that has been invalidating me in certain moments on my life. Rheumatoid arthritis closes some doors, but it opens other doors too, even without notice. You learn to be patient and to develop your willpower, and these in science are pluses.
You work also on science popularization. Do you think this is a relevant task for the society we live in?
I think so. Whenever I have the occasion and receive a proposal, I’m pleased to give talks to students in primary schools, high schools and universities. It’s an engaging way to catch the attention for science, particularly among the youngest. It’s important for them no notice that, in spite of advances, there are many questions for which we don’t have the answers yet. I like also to attend events where scientific culture is promoted. Recently I participated on a TEDxtalk in Sant Cugat. Science must be engaging and we scientists have the duty of increasing the scientific culture in our country. It’s time to open doors and go ou
By Ana Crespo