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Lively debate at public symposium on sustainability

A public symposium was held at Leiden University on 20 February on a hot topic: renewable energy. This is the second time in a year that the University has organised such a symposium. The previous one, about Artificial Intelligence, was a big success.

At a quarter to seven the golden-hued Lorentz Hall in the Kamerlingh Onnes Building gradually started to fill. The guests who had braved the rain to be here were pleased with the cup of tea or coffee on offer. Lecture halls were nothing new to them, it would appear, as notepads were diligently produced.

Maarten Muns was first onstage, to introduce the speakers. He had organised the symposium, he said, because he wanted to take the information from our research dossiers offline for a change. He invited the audience to ask as many questions as possible, something the enthusiastic guests did not need to be told twice.

The wonders of hydrogen

The first speaker was chemist Marc Koper. He conducts research into how electrolysis can be used to convert water and CO2 into useful products, but he began his talk with a short history of hydrogen itself. This is necessary if you want to be able to explain today’s problems with hydrogen: namely, how do you produce it? It is produced from fossil fuels, which obviously isn’t particularly sustainable. The audience eagerly took notes. Koper ended his talk with the promising news that the research into electrolysis, which not only his colleagues but also oil companies are working on, could help make energy production more sustainable.

After a well-earned round of applause, it was time for audience questions. The guests showed that they had been paying attention by asking relevant and technical questions. An interesting dialogue ensued, giving Koper and the audience a chance to say their bit.

Marc Koper hydrogen
Marc Koper talks enthusiastically about his research

Social acceptance of energy projects

Koper then handed over to Emma ter Mors. Her research looks from a psychological perspective at how the public responds to different types of energy project. She looks at climate discussions, for instance, but also at the acceptance of new technology. Her research aims to expose the underlying factors of various issues, so that account can be taken of this in new plans. She therefore regularly shares her research findings with parties such as project managers and policymakers, who are only too glad to use these.

The audience clearly needed time to digest this information because at first the questions were few and far between, but once the conversation had started to flow, there was no stopping them. We were already running over, but the hands continued to go up. From questions about real-life examples to questions of a more technical nature... In the end Muns, the host of the evening, was forced to chivvy things along and move on to the next speaker.

From catalysis to nuclear energy

The next talk proved no less interesting. Irene Groot, a chemist like Koper, had come to talk about catalysis and how this can be used to produce renewable energy. However, she began by explaining about energy consumption in the Netherlands and where progress could be made. The figures show that the transport sector is a big polluter, so Groot mainly works with oil companies that are investing in becoming more eco-friendly. These companies are also trying to move with trends in society, or stay ahead of them even. Groot echoed Ter Mors here, who had already noted that oil companies were feeling the pressure from society.

Groot then explained in more technical terms how catalysts can help produce clean fuels. She also drew links with Koper’s talk, bringing the evening to a satisfying end. The details are too complicated to summarise in a sentence or two – this was also apparent from the audience questions. These were very technical and detailed, which led to heated discussions. Nuclear energy was just one of the topics that cropped up on this already packed evening. Just as the discussion had really begun to heat up, it became clear that we had gone way over time and could be thrown out of the hall at any moment. Most opportune therefore.

One of the visitors was full of praise afterwards. He found the evening very interesting, with many new insights and complex subject matter, which was conveyed in an appealing way. He was also pleased with the amount of time for questions and discussion.

Text: Ramón van Doorn

Photography: Sabrina Otterloo

Irene Groot catalysts
Irene Groot tells the audience about catalysts

For more information on this subject or on the wide range of research projects at Leiden University, take a look at our research dossiers. Hope to see you at our next symposium!

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