Sustainability in the future of Singapore

Are you a PhD student wanting to travel to a conference to present your results? At the National University of Singapore (NUS) you need to win a competition! Yesterday, at the Mechanical Engineering department at NUS, a pool of PhD students presented their work in front of an audience and four judges (professors at the department), to compete in receiving funding for their travels to conferences. Interesting concept that, reproducing the context of a conference, encourage the students to excel and really earn the opportunity to give a talk at international arenas.

The logo of NTU, as it appears in a common area for students
The logo of NTU, as it appears in a common area for students

In addition to my collaboration with colleagues from the National University of Singapore, these days I had the opportunity to visit some laboratories at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and learn about some other interesting initiatives on energy efficiency and energy systems.

Two flagship projects on energy systems

In particular, two flagship projects with a ten years perspective cover the energy value chain from generation, transmission to end use. They are commercially driven and involve NTU, companies and institutions in the Clean Environment Technology domain, in a cost sharing basis.

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Energy under the sun of Singapore

The images of snow from the Norwegians news cannot be more far away from the warm humidity I experience here in Singapore. I am spending one month as a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), one of the best Universities in the world and listed as the number 22 according to the World University Rankings 2018.

The impression of a University projected towards the future is everywhere, from the several slogans one can read (“transformative education and multidisciplinary research to nurture effective global leaders, impact society and transform lives for the better”), to new sections of buildings continuously under construction in the campus. Here I collaborate with a scientist at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, in addition to giving seminars and visit other facilities like the Energy Research Institute of Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The Department of Mechanical Engineering at NUS.  Singapore is full of green spaces.

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Decarbonisation of energy systems

This spring I had the pleasure to moderate a panel of discussion in Phoenix about materials needs for energy sustainability by 2050.  Now the podcast of that discussion is available on-line! The recording lasts one hour and a half, so if you want to have a quick idea on the topic, you can follow the extract that I give during an interview.

Around 350 people attended the discussion, in an exchange of ideas between the public and the panelists: George Crabtree from University of Illinois at Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, Cherry Murray from Harvard University, Ellen D. Williams from University of Maryland, and Russel R. Chianelli from University of Texas El Paso.

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The starting point was the Paris agreement signed in 2015 by 195 countries, which aims to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C”. An ambitious goal that will require the economies around the globe to decarbonize large parts of the world’s energy system, that is to embark in one of the most profound transformations in its history: a transition of energy supply and consumption from a system fueled primarily by non-renewable, carbon-based energy sources, to one fueled by clean, low-carbon energy sources.

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Materials science at the frontiers

Where else can you get a wide glimpse into the frontier of materials discoveries if not at an event like the MRS Fall Meeting in Boston?     I am just back from a stimulating trip to USA and then Germany (for an IEA hydrogen implementation agreement, as will be described later) where all rotated around scientific highlights and the researchers that could imagine them.

The last three years as one of the director of the Materials Research Society (MRS) have been an incredible opportunity to serve an organization which counts almost 15,000 members from around the world. It has been an honour and pleasure to work with staff and scientists committed to ensure a vibrant future for the global community of materials researches. I have been inspired by MRS core values, my favourite above all: recognize that diversity drives innovation, excellence and new discoveries.

Especially this year we put our efforts in the strategic planning of how MRS activities, from meetings and publications, to outreach, can better position the Society for the future. I learned how important it is to have a vision and design a strategy to realize it. This is a lesson I hope will guide my future research, because sometimes I feel it is easy to get trapped in the day to day work, without stopping for a moment and thinking the reason for doing what we are doing.

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Why do I teach the way I do?

Already five years since the beginning of the course Renewable Energy: Science and Technology! After designing it from the concept to its contents, my colleagues joke the course is like my “baby”, with my effort to make it grow up year after year. The class is always a good mix of foreign and Norwegian students. Some of the students are in Norway only for a semester, others are doing their master or PhD in Norway or abroad, other participants are working in a company and take this as a single course, others are looking for a change in their professions. Having students from around the world, it is of great interest to share the information the students have from their respective countries and often this results in exciting discussions. However, besides the enthusiasm I have for the topic of the course, I often ask myself how can I promote deep active learning against a superficial one? Ultimately, why do I teach the way I do?

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Touching the solar collectors at Akershus EnergiPark

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Urgency of zero emissions beyond the confusion

A new controversy has sparked the climate change debate.

A team of experts on carbon budgets recently published a study in Nature Geoscience that is stimulating mixed reviews, controversies among scientists and confusion in the media.

In short, the authors of the study presented a new calculation of the amount of carbon dioxide the world could still emit (so called carbon budget) while limiting the global warming to 1.5 oC – the target set by the Paris Climate Agreement.

The new study wanted to investigate a discrepancy between previous predictions and actual data. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used climate models to relate the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted with global warming. From these models, the predicted temperature in 2015 was expected to be about 1.2 oC above that registered in 1870. Instead, the measured temperature in 2015 resulted only 0.9 oC higher, meaning that the world experienced more carbon emitted and less global warming than the models predicted.

To adjust this discrepancy the new study in Nature Geoscience proposes to recalculate the previous models starting from the observations data for 2015 rather than using the pre-2015 cumulative carbon emissions since 1870, as in the IPCC models. The result of the new simulations show that the carbon budget would last a few decades before reaching the 1.5 oC limit, not just few years.

And here comes the confusion. After the release of the scientific work, the media jumped immediately on the conclusion that the global temperature is not increasing as fast as predicted by the IPCC. So that the authors Millar et al., had to quickly clarify: “We find that, to likely meet the Paris goal, emission reductions would need to begin immediately and reach zero in less than 40 years’ time. While that is not geophysically impossible, to suggest that this means that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are now unnecessary is clearly false.”

The confusion is understandable considering the complexity of the topic and the disagreement between scientists on how to elaborate and interpret the data. However, it is important to stress that the new study – even with its revised carbon budget – confirms the need to dramatically cut the CO2 emissions for decades, aiming at zero emissions by 2050-2100.

This debate around a scientific publication makes me think once more how important it is for the scientists to communicate their results also to the society at large. Sometimes academic publications can be difficult to read for non-specialist. Especially when the topic has high political implications as in this case, a special attention should be paid on passing a clear message through, possibly using several means of communication in addition to the scientific papers.

Countdown to the Cutting Edge festival

The new edition of the Cutting Edge festival is around the corner! This year it is a great pleasure for me to partecipate as a speaker. It will be exciting to have the possibility to hear about the latest breakthroughs in science and innovation, and catch a glimpse of the hot topics which will potentially shape our future.

My daily research focus and interest revolve around many aspects of energy systems, specifically towards the integration of renewable energy sources into the power grid. During my talk, we will look at the trends that are converging to produce game-changing disruptions to the traditional electricity system. In addition to being an important platform for receiving feedbacks on my current projects, I am sure the Cutting Edge festival will be a fantastic source of inspiration!

See you there!



Future Energy in Kazakhstan

Before this trip, I knew very little about Kazakhstan. These days I have been invited to present my work at the Italian-Kazakh bilateral symposium ”Our common future: energy, environment and development”, organised at the Expo 2017 Future Energy in Astana.

Despite many intern2017-08-31 11.27.42 copyational journalists criticised the event for the lack of content and participation, I believe the Expo has the important merit to help open a window to this remote part of the world

Since its establishment as an independent country in 1991, Kazakhstan has become the strongest growing economy in Central Asia, thanks to its huge fossil fuel and mineral resources. However, the environmental awareness in the country is poor and the Kazakh government – possibly to affirm its growing role on the world stage – is using the Expo to show its co2017-08-30 21.33.45mmitment to communicate sustainable development concepts and principles at all levels: from policy makers to local authorities and to the public. Judging from the enthusiasm of the locals at the beautiful Kazakh pavilion, the message seems to resonate with the population.

Aggressive clean goals

The aggressive strategy announced by the Kazakhstan´s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, aims to position the country among the 30 top economies by 2050. Here there are plenty of opportunities in clean energy technology research and development. The short-term goal is to produce 3% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, while reducing the greenhouse gases emissions of 15% by 2020 and of 25% by 2050 (as compared to the 1992 levels).

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The transformative role of energy storage

Lithium-ion batteries enabled the personal electronics revolution and forever changed the way we interact with people and information. Can they also conquer transportation and the electricity grid?

George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), had a clear message today for the students of the course on Renewable Energy: Science and Technology (UNIK4800/9800). “Li-ion cost too much and is limited in its performance by the materials that make up the Li-ion batteries. For this reason, in our center, we are looking for next generation batteries, beyond Li-ion, to really make a transformative change in the way transportation and the grid operate.”

The American JCESR has a unique approach and tackles the problem through a collaborative effort among 20 partners including national laboratories, universities and private companies.

“For instance, the electricity grid as it operates now and has operated in the past, has a very fundamental constraint – says George Crabtree. You have to produce electricity at exactly the same rate as you use it. Through three interacting transition involving storage, smart and distributed resources, the grid of the future will look very different from today!”

Welcome to the course to all new master and PhD students!

See you again in class!

Paris Agreement, what now?

Few hours ago we heard about the US decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. This means the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases will exit the international effort to address  global warming, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries not taking part to it.

As the reactions are coming in, Europe vows to keep the commitment to limit warming below 2oC and strive to keep temperatures at 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. However, many are concerned that other countries could follow US´s decision.

Obviously, the American scientific community is worried to loose vital funding for investments in basic science, research and development of low-carbon energy technologies.

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“Careful observation is the first thing to do in science”

This is the wise recommendation of Sumio Iijima, with which I am lucky to share the floor during the NTAI conference in Israel these days! Everything sta2017-05-09 15.35.52rted with two letters from Kroto and Smalley sent to Sumio Iijima in 1987 asking for help. Two year before, in 1985, Kroto, Smalley and Curl saw a strange spike in the time-of-flight mass spectrum, after vaporising a graphite disk under laser pulses.Screenshot 2017-05-17 12.36.45


At that time, it was known that carbon appears in nature in the form of graphite and diamond. The strange pattern in the spectrum was a hint of the formation of unknown carbon clusters of 60 carbon atoms: the fullerenes were born. However, after Kroto et al. published their discovery in Nature, not many believed the existence of these carbon structures. Some more evidence was needed!

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Materials needs for our energy future

The need for action is pressing. If we want to limit the global warming to well below 2°C, as a goal identified at the COP21 Paris Agreement, the world needs to embark on one of the most profound transformations in its history: a transition from carbon-based energy sources to a low-emissions future. The challenges ahead are many, including new energy carriers, a major transformation of the energy infrastructure, and significant materials advances over the coming decades.

To talk about this and much more, next week I will moderate a panel of discussion during the MRS Spring meeting in Phoenix: Materials Needs for Energy Sustainability by 2050. Together with top experts we will discuss how we can achieve an energy-efficient, low-carbon future and what scientists, policy makers and the society as a whole can do to realise this vision.

If you are in Phoenix, please join us!