Monday 12 september 2022
Joey: ‘Bob, let me start with a question I always ask applicants. If you could be a superhero or a villain for a day – who would you choose? And why?’
Bob: ‘Haha, that’s a fun question! Actually, I'm not really into superheroes. But if I’d have to choose, I’d pick Superman. Being able to fly seems really cool to me. And Superman is a good guy, who makes the world a better place. That's what I try to do in my work.'
Joey: ‘Tell me, how do you do that?’
Bob: 'For example, I'm working on the Negative Emission Program for the Centre for Energy Innovation. If we want to stop global warming, we need to do more than just reduce CO2 emissions. That’s not going to get us anywhere. That’s why I’m working on the concept of carbon harvesting: harvesting carbon from the atmosphere. This involves very interesting chemical technology. For example, to find the right absorbent or to process large air flows as energy-efficiently as possible. We’re also investigating how we can make CO2 react with certain minerals, which convert it into useful products or raw materials. That way we can store and transform the CO2 and prevent it from being released back into the atmosphere. We call that negative emission.'
Joey: ‘Interesting. And those studies are conducted by consortia, I understand?’
Bob: ‘Indeed. Scientists, industry, and the government work together in this type of research. It's about the future of our planet. That’s why so many people want to invest in it. What I like is that we work programmatically these days. That guards you against doing all kinds of small subprojects and solving only part of the problem. A research program consists of a series of projects that, together, tackle the whole issue. This requires an integrated working method, in which different fields and expertise work together and submit grant applications. If such a request is approved, you can really get to work. These are huge amounts. And then the question is: can you make it? Do you have enough good people? That’s why it’s important that UT is known as a unique place and a great employer.'
Joey: 'And then it's up to you as a program manager to get the right people and parties together. How do you do that?'
Bob: 'I don't think of networking as 'work'. It’s something you always do, out of genuine interest. Recently I met someone who obtained his PhD at UT at the same time I did, 25 years ago. He’s now a professor in South Africa. In the Negative Emission Program, we signed a letter of intent with the South African chemical and energy company SASOL. He turned out to know that company very well. That gives me a new connection there. Our director, Jos Keurentjes, is also very good at this. He has an enormous network in science, industry, and government. Everywhere we go, he knows someone. That’s how we can get things done together. While networking, we’re also looking for ways to be economical, by the way. We used to fly around the world a few times a year. Nowadays, that’s a lot less. And we take the train for all distances shorter than 500 kilometres.'
Joey: ‘What do you think is the reason that not everyone sees the urgency of climate change yet?’
Bob: 'Europe and America emit much more CO2 than the rest of the world. That makes it complicated. If you want to stop it, everyone has to participate. While not everyone sees it as their problem. Plus, the legislation is different in every country. The current president of Brazil doesn't care that the rainforest is falling at all. But Ecuador, for example, has enshrined in its constitution that the land also has rights. Makes sense to me. Because it is, of course, quite something that an oil company extracts oil from somewhere and makes money from it. It makes you wonder: who actually owns that stuff? But to come back to your question, climate change is a complex, global problem, with conflicting interests underneath. And there’s no single solution. You need to do different things in the desert than in Iceland.”
Joey: ‘Sounds logical, but do you have an example?’
Bob: 'Iceland has the largest CO2 capture installation in the world. In addition, the thermally active Icelandic soil contains minerals that bind CO2. They pump the CO2 they take from the air into the ground and then it's done. In the desert, on the other hand, you have a lot of free solar energy to harvest CO2 in a sustainable way. When you capture CO2, water always comes with it. To us, that water is 'waste', but in the desert it’s very welcome, for example for irrigation. And if you convert the CO2 into carbon, you can use it to make land more fertile. So with this kind of local customisation, you kill two birds with one stone. But it does take time, money, and research.’
Joey: ‘This is like getting a course on energy and geopolitics. I love it! At the end of May you did sort of a Ted Talk at the Stoer Voer food festival. But I heard that you also share your story on other stages?'
Bob: ‘That's right. Guus Rijnders, scientific director of MESA+, organises the University at the Zwarte Cross every year. UT gives short lectures there. This year I participated as well. I accompanied myself on guitar. My lecture was called the CO2 blues. I also think it fits, such a stage. We're not sitting here in an ivory tower doing difficult things. We’re working together to make the world a little better.’
Joey: ‘I think we could talk for hours, but I have one last question, about something completely different. I understand from a reliable source that you – just like me – are an avid carnaval-goer. Is that right?'
Bob: ‘Absolutely! I was born and raised in Oldenzaal, where we always celebrate carnival. After my PhD, I worked in Maastricht for almost twenty years. They know what they’re doing there. In Maastricht the outfits are much more exuberant, and everyone paints their face. I took that with me when I returned to my roots a few years ago. In Oldenzaal you used to see a lot of the traditional farmer's keel, but it’s getting more and more exuberant. Last year I had my face painted in the colours of Eddie van Halen's guitar.’
Joey: ‘Haha, I wish I’d been there! As a Brabander living in Enschede, I do miss carnaval. So maybe we can visit each other next February. I now know how to recognize you!’
Bob: ‘Good idea, agreed!’