Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry

Fruitful workshop provides food for thought on sustainability issues

26 September 2016

The joint workshop on Sustainability of the Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry (HRSMC) and the Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS) can be considered a great success. Fascinating plenary lectures and engaging workshop sessions gave rise to fruitful discussions among the many participants.

On the afternoon of Friday 23 September the Turing conference hall of the Amsterdam Science Park Congress Centre was well filled with participants from academia and industry. Next to Master's and PhD students, postdocs and staff members of HRSMC and HIMS also a number of employees from chemistry-oriented companies in the Amsterdam area attended the workshop, organised in the context of the UvA's Research Priority Area Sustainable Chemistry.

Professor Wybren Jan Buma (right) introducing first speaker professor Jacqueline Cramer. Photo HRSMC.

All were warmly welcomed by professor Wybren Jan Buma, scientific director of the HRSMC, who considered sustainability a major theme encompassing all major challenges facing society today, ranging from energy matters to health issues. In the end, according to Buma, it all boils down to creating, analysing and understanding molecular systems and processes - which is precisely the HRSMC approach in research and education. Furthermore he considered the Science Park Amsterdam the appropriate place for hosting the joint sustainability workshop, since it harbours a powerhouse of molecular knowledge and expertise that can yield the much-needed breakthroughs.

Fascinating plenary lectures

The first plenary lecture was given by professor Jacqueline Cramer, UvA alumnus and former Dutch minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. Cramer currently is professor of Sustainable Innovation at Utrecht University and member of the Amsterdam Economic Board, where she advocates and stimulates the development of a circular economy in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. In her lecture she explained the essential concepts of the circular economy and challenged her audience to use their knowledge to obtain the highest possible value in re-using materials and developing sustainable resources. She illustrated the challenges and opportunities in this field with an inspiring overview of the initiatives in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.

Dr René Kleijn. Photo HRSMC.

The next speaker, industrial ecologist Dr René Kleijn from Leiden University, took sustainability to a more global level in his lecture on resources scarcity and the circular economy. He outlined the global challenges in materials use for the next four decades, resulting from the cumulative effect of urbanization, growing income, evermore complexity in product design, and fundamental changes in energy systems. The key for a sustainable future lies in decoupling material flows from economic growth, Kleijn argued. This means society has to rethink the way materials are used. In his view the concept of the circular economy will not provide the ultimate solution, but it sure can contribute to a transition towards a sustainable future, together with for example the development of novel business models. 

Prof. Gert Jan Kramer. Photo HRSMC.

Professor Gert Jan Kramer of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University continued with his lecture on 'fixing the energy/climate problem: calibrating the pace of change'. As a former Shell manager responsible for the assessment of future energy technologies he brought in quite some experience in the field of technology forecasting. He argued that in principle it is possible to deliver net-zero-emission energy to the growing global population, but that this requires all hands on deck. It is not that technological development is slow, he pointed out, it is that the energy systems are so enormously large. Photovoltaic and wind energy have already grown considerably and will grow to do so. But the gained momentum holds no guarantee that we'll get there in time. Had global warming been an act of aliens, the world would have been quick to wage a war against them, Kramer asserted. Alas we ourselves are the ones to blame, which makes for a completely different kind of war.

Prof. Appy Sluijs. Photo HRSMC.

Finally professor Appy Sluijs (Utrecht University) passionately delivered a 'crash course' on paleoceanography research that 'reads the past to project the future'. He provided ample examples of radiocarbon analysis of sediments and bedrock leading to the establishment of historical trends in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide levels, ocean acidification and the temperature in the oceans and at the surface of the earth. He displayed optimism and confidence in the ability of science to provide these insights and establish the 'planetary boundaries' of the earth, but refrained from predictions regarding the fate of humankind. Sluijs did however stress the importance of reducing the uncertainty in the projections of future global temperatures, which underlie such predictions.

Sustainable chemistry bootcamp

Wrapping up the plenary part of the workshop, professor Joost Reek, scientific director of HIMS, underpinned that the key of sustainability lies in the ability to live in harmony with nature. People like the aborigines in Australia have been able to do so for tens of thousands of years. The challenge for our comparably young, technology-driven society now is to achieve this same harmony.

Before announcing the subsequent workshop sessions, Reek challenged his audience to apply for the ACE Venture Lab Bootcamp Sustainable Chemistry in November. In this bootcamp Master's students, PhD students and postdocs compete for 6-12 months of salary and mentoring to start-up their own chemical company.

Engaging workshop sessions


Discussion in small groups. Photo: HRSMC.

Starting point of the workshop of René Kleijn on materials and recycling were several cases centered around renowned companies such as Apple, Gilette and Tesla. What could the participants think of, was his question, to increase sustainability and stimulate a circular economy for these companies. Although the idea was to look for answers on the basis of the participant's own expertise, the resulting discussion quickly broadened towards more general sustainability issues. This nevertheless provided the participants with insights and opinions that could be useful in their own field.

In the workshop on energy led by Gert Jan Kramer the assignment was to identify the challenges and opportunities for The Netherlands in the short and long term. In the discussion it turned out most of the participants had a fair knowledge of existing initiatives in this field. Examples and opinions were exchanged in an open discussion that sometimes took a perhaps unexpected direction, for instance in the conclusion of one of the groups that it might be worth to explore the use of marketing tactics to steer the general public in the direction of sustainable energy use.

Prof. Jan van Maarseveen. Photo HRSMC.

The third workshop, led by HIMS professor Jan van Maarseveen of bio-inspired organic chemistry, explored the role of carbon - one of earth's  major elements, although not in abundance - in the biosphere. Participants were provided with multiple calculations regarding carbon and carbon dioxide cycles; one provided the insight that bringing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels back to pre-industrial levels would require the planting of over 70 billion trees - involving a surface area five times that of Germany. Other calculations provided insight in the important role of the oceans in the carbon cycle, become less alkaline as a result of the increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

The workshop concluded with drinks and snacks during which the lively discussions continued until late in the afternoon.

Published by  Holland Research School of Molecular Chemistry