Accelerating the Next Generation of Novel Technologies
In the last 20 years, our lab and other labs have found solutions to recover carbon during wastewater treatment as part of a circular economy. Examples are anaerobic digestion and chain elongation with microbiomes.
However, this is not enough; we must now develop carbon-negative technologies to produce, for example, fuels, green chemicals, plastics, and even human food. To stop global warming beyond 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, we need to remove CO2 from smokestacks or even the atmosphere, and then carbon needs to be stored. One technology platform takes plant material and burns it under oxygen-limiting conditions so that carbon material, which plants had removed as CO2 from the atmosphere, is converted into pyrogenic biochar and CO. The biochar can be stored to improve soils, and the CO is used via biological conversions to make, for example, plastics or human food. This combination is one example of how the production of plastics or human food could become carbon negative. Other carbon-capture technologies use chemicals to temporarily bind and remove CO2, which we would like to utilize for product development.
A single research lab cannot easily make a huge impact by itself. Our lab has translated research from the laboratory bench into two different start-up companies (Electrochaea and Capro-X). These companies are now further developing their technologies in a much more concentrated way than an academic lab can ever do. My lab is continuing this entrepreneurial tradition and we are actively working on several more spin-off companies. In addition, my lab is working as a satellite facility working with the Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Center at Aarhus University in Denmark. This effort will provide us with collaborations in the carbon-capture area and colleagues with scale-up expertise and facilities. Again, only in larger organizations can a change in our society be initiated within a relatively short period.
Lars Angenent’s Motivation
To develop innovative technologies, it is important to work with talented young people who are interested in investing their time to make the world a better place. Young people see the world in a different light than I do, and they come up with ideas that are more innovative and more daring. Therefore, the most gratifying part of my job is to work closely with my students and post-docs to overcome problems that we struggle with when innovating. I keep learning every day, which makes my job exciting and never boring. Of course, I have moments when I have to walk on my tows to keep up with them, but it is worth it. But, even when technology works, critical thinking is necessary to find out whether we should use it; are there problematic parts of the technology that make the system not sustainable? My group uses quantitative methods to answer such questions. The best aspect of my job is that I have complete freedom to innovate. Of course this freedom comes with responsibilities:
Lars Angenent’s Daily work
I spent much of my time in my office writing and editing research papers and proposals, to edit thesis and dissertation documents while I need to make sure I answer my emails and communicate with the team members in my group. I attend group seminars, dissertation defenses, faculty meetings, and research seminars. I meet with my Ph.D. students and post-docs in person once every other week to mentor them. I also enjoy walking through the lab every day, which keeps me up to date with the projects. During the academic semester, I spent half of my time on teaching courses, which includes: preparing for lectures, homework, and exams; editing reports; grading homework; and lecturing. I travel to conferences and project meetings or communicate via videoconferencing.
It is hard to find the time to think, and for this reason, I stay in my writing office once a week to also read journal papers from other groups. I also learn from others by reviewing external manuscripts, dissertations, and research proposals. Recently, I learned a lot from reviewing entire academic departments. Finally, I learn from attending committee meetings such as the sustainability committee from the University of Tübingen. Furthermore, I am involved in hiring new colleagues. As a faculty member, many activities are occurring at the same time. This can be daunting at times, but also makes my job super exciting.