"To support the needs of the growing population, to maintain and improve the life expectancy and life quality we take for granted, we cannot just produce more. We need to produce better."
The global population is rapidly growing; on average, 2.5 new inhabitants are born each second. Indeed, it is estimated that by 2050, our planet will be inhabited by more than 10 billion people. To maintain and improve quality of life standards on a global scale while meeting the needs of an expanding world population, the production of food, medicine, consumer goods, and new technologies must be accelerated. This begs the question: can the world sustain our growing population in the same way it has up until now without causing additional ecological damage or further depleting natural resources?
One example of the increasingly far-reaching environmental consequences of modern life is that, over the past 70 years, the production of plastic increased from 1.5 million tons per year in 1950 to 350 million tons per year in 2020. This statistic might have been fine if people had known how to handle and treat plastic after use. Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case as only 9% of plastic is recycled. In 2020 alone, more than 20 million tons of plastic ended up in the ocean, creating a floating mass that is twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. If humanity continues with its consumption patterns, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the water than fish. If that’s not enough, recent studies found microparticles of plastic in people’s blood and lungs. In order to ensure that future generations can continue to flourish on this planet, novel solutions are desperately required.
Drastic changes are needed
“We are in a situation where drastic changes are needed,” Distinguished Professor Ilan Marek of the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry says. “To support the needs of the growing population, to maintain and improve the life expectancy and life quality we take for granted, we cannot just produce more. We need to produce better.” The answer to sustainable production, he believes, lies in catalysis.
A catalyst is any substance that triggers or speeds up a chemical reaction. Catalysts are crucial for sustaining life itself; they control our cells, are responsible for performing our digestive processes, and form a part of our immune systems. Catalysts also make modern life possible; they play key roles in food production, drug and materials manufacturing, energy production, and many other fields. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the world today or the concept of civilized society without catalysis and its notable impact on fundamental aspects of our lives.
Catalysis stands at the nexus of many disciplines, enabling discoveries that impact areas as diverse as health (e.g., medicine, imaging), food (agrichemicals), energy (efficiency, storage, sustainable manufacturing) and more, thereby assuming a critical role in the global economy. As a process, catalysis is generally associated with underpinning several trillions of dollars of the global GDP, and it is central to the production of 90% of all manufactured products.
We need new discoveries that would change the world. But without the environmental impact
In order to identify catalyst-based solutions to humanity’s sustainability challenges, the Technion is inaugurating its Center for Sustainable Processes and Catalysis. The Center will develop new catalysts to allow for more sustainable processes, and will ultimately aim to solve environment-related global problems.
The fruits of this endeavor are expected to strengthen the State of Israel, as well as further elevate the Technion’s reputation as a leading center of science and innovation. Israel as a nation, and particularly the Technion, should be very proud of the achievements of the last 70 years. The average life expectancy in Israel increased by 15 years since the state’s establishment, serving as a testimony to improved healthcare systems and healthier lifestyles, which have been amplified by access to advanced technological tools.
Towards a more sustainable future
There are many challenges to overcome on the journey to achieving the catalyst-based vision of a sustainable future. One challenge seems to be developing solutions that continue to advance our civilization while preserving the planet’s ecology and natural resources. The future of the planet depends on our ability to think outside the box and discover new ways to address global sustainability issues. The Center for Sustainable Processes and Catalysis will address and attempt to identify ways to reinvent global production processes so that they are more sustainable, cost-effective and efficient, in order to minimize continued harm to the environment.
The Center will have several goals. The first will be to acquire necessary, state-of-the-art equipment that will enable adequate and advanced investigation into catalytic processes, in real-time. To this end, the Center will consist of several core facilities: a reaction discovery and catalyst development facility, an advanced analytical and spectroscopy facility, a heterogeneous processes facility, and a computational chemistry and Big Data facility – serving the entirety of the Technion’s catalysis community.
The future of the planet depends on our ability to think outside the box and discover new ways to address global sustainability issues
The second aim is to create and promote multidisciplinary collaboration and partnerships among industry, startup companies, and government agencies. The Center will harness the Technion’s resources in chemistry, biotechnology, physics, biology, computer science, chemical engineering, materials engineering, food engineering, and civil engineering, among other fields, providing more than 100 professors with access to essential equipment, as well as a unified facility or platform through which to interact. One of the cornerstones of the Center will be the interdisciplinary nature of the collaboration between faculty members involved in studying various areas and applications of catalysis. A seed funding program, Innovative Research Ideas Startup (IRIS), will support innovative collaborative research ideas for a one-year period, providing initial funding to proposals that have the potential to be commercialized. In short, the Center will serve as an incubator for catalysis-based talent, ideas, and solutions.
The third aim of the center will be to assist Israeli industry sectors that rely on the Technion’s vast and diverse expertise in catalysis. Using the most sophisticated lab equipment, Technion experts in the field will be able to provide catalytic solutions for industry partners that will boost Israel’s industrial exports and will allow the Israeli economy to benefit from the development of more efficient and sustainable industrial processes and applications.
Nurturing young talent
One of the most important novelties of the Center will be the Incubator for Young Talents. In contrast to the traditional laboratory setup – in which researchers work in isolation from each other – this Center will feature an innovative open-space research laboratory model, providing lab space for eight new faculty members and their teams. This approach has several aims: to enhance multidisciplinary collaboration in a field that is rapidly evolving, to pool the use of advanced pieces of equipment among multiple researchers, and to encourage researchers of different academic disciplines to combine their expertise to solve major problems in the field. It is the Technion’s belief that the pace of innovation and discovery made possible by this open-space laboratory setup is likely to exceed that of a conventional lab arrangement.
This new faculty incubator will be established to nurture rising stars and ensure a steady flow of junior research faculty. A dedicated ad hoc committee, in close collaboration with all of the Technion’s faculties, will identify the ideal talents. After a rigorous selection process, researchers will be offered a tenure-track position. The incubator will serve as a home for junior faculty for up to six years, where they will be provided with research funding, equipment, the ability to recruit graduate students and technical staff, select a mentor of their choice, and receive administrative support. After this period, each researcher will integrate into a Technion faculty of their choice. This structure will enable a positive turnover in the incubator, where new and fresh ideas will be constantly investigated.
Ensuring continued prosperity
The Technion is uniquely positioned to realize this vision. For nearly a century, the Technion has spearheaded research programs in science and technology designed not only to expand the boundaries of knowledge, but also to ensure the continued prosperity of Israel, the Startup Nation, and its people. The Technion has a long history of pioneering new fields of research, which are subsequently developed through special programs and dedicated national projects. For example, the Technion’s international renown in the fields of civil engineering, aerospace engineering, computer science, and nanotechnology paved the way for the thriving corresponding industries that lead Israel’s economy. The university’s commitment to promoting sustainability is evident in the research being conducted in its Nancy and Stephen Grand Technion Energy Program and the Grand Water Research Institute.
“New molecules and new processes can change the way we live, much like the Haber-Bosch process changed it in the past, supporting almost half of the world’s population through increased food production,” says Prof. Marek, referring to a process of fertilizer production. “It is perhaps one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century. But it is also a process that consumes a large amount of energy and is responsible for considerable CO2 emissions. Now we need new discoveries that would change the world just as much, but without the environmental impact.”
As we urgently need to give back to our planet what we took from it, to nurture and preserve it, we also need to correct our past mistakes by developing new and sustainable catalytic transformation. The Technion aims to become a leading global innovator in the catalysis field, guided by the fulfillment of this critical mandate.
This article was originally published in the June 2022 President’s Report.