The young minds that will help us save the planet from climate change.
A conversation with a group of young participants at the NextChem Summer School
Seyedeh Somayeh Taghavi is Iranian. Degree and Master in applied chemistry at the University of Tehran, PhD at Ca’ Foscari in Venice. She is slender but strong, Seyedeh Somayeh, beautiful with accomplished and serious beauty. "Three years ago, I had a scholarship in Iran to study for a while abroad," she tells us. "I decided to come to Italy, to Venice. One day, I was walking along the canals and saw algae floating; it was an enlightenment, the idea of my research came from there" she tells us with her eyes that light up: that algae, which were necessary for the reaction tests at the base of her research, she picked with her own hands right from the lagoon. The research line she chose is interesting and among the most ambitious: using algae to produce biofuels and hydrogen, the new frontier of energy transition. "Green chemistry" stems from a platform of connection between university and industry, says the Iranian girl with conviction.
It is on this connection that she laid the foundations of the Summer School held in Sarteano, in the province of Siena, a jewel village with a municipal theater as a venue for lectures with a name that is itself a program: Teatro degli Arrischianti. It is there that we met Seyedeh Somayeh together with other girls and boys fascinated by the challenge of fighting climate change and determined to identify new technological solutions to cope with it. With the help of an alliance of public and private partners engaged in technological research like Maire Tecnimont, together with her company NextChem (dedicated to Green Chemistry and Energy Transition), AIDIC - Italian Association of Chemical Engineering, KT Kinetics Technology, Università Campus Biomedico, ITM-National Research Council, ERIC-European Research Institute of Catalysis, the course involved 45 PhD graduating students from different Italian and foreign universities from 22 to 26 July.
The initiative has a captivating title but for many it might still sound a utopia: "Making business with Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy". Instead, for these students, not only is it not utopia, but it is certainly the path they themselves have chosen for their future.
"I wanted to do something that had a positive impact on society and the environment," says Francesco Sebastiani, a Chemical Engineer, with a Masters in Sustainable Energy Technologies at the Delft University of Technology, already working as a researcher in the area of technology sustainable processes, particularly in the gas and biomass sector. "In this sector, there are more opportunities than challenges and the next 10 years will be fundamental to try to limit the damage that has already been created and that can now only be limited" says Francesco.
Nicola Di Fidio is also on the same line; he is an industrial and environmental biotechnologist with a specialization in Chemistry and Materials Science. His research focuses on the possibilities of obtaining a new generation of bio-diesel and bio-products based on biomass, i.e. vegetable waste. "This path is not reversible: no planet B, no plan B; we only have one way out, the shift to alternative energy sources is a forced choice," says Nicola. "Trying to free the world from oil is my dream," he tells us, "and I am aware that there is no single solution, but the path is that of combining multiple solutions. One of these is to produce energy from biomass not for food use". Nicola's dream is to create a sustainable bio-refinery; at the base of his dream is the vision of a different world: "today's citizens are more sensitive and this is a positive indicator because it is the sensitivity of citizens that drives political choices in Europe."
Alessia Borgogna has already had the opportunity to experience first hand the results of her research work in the development of an alternative industrial culture, which probably represents the true second industrial revolution. Alessia is in fact completing her doctorate with work experience in collaboration with the University of Rome La Sapienza and NextChem, a company of the Maire Tecnimont Group dedicated to Green Chemistry and Energy Transition, or to the development of brown to green technologies, for the decarbonization (or mitigation of the carbon footprint) of traditional processes, green to green, for the development of new materials or chemicals not deriving from fossil sources, or technologies for the circular economy, such as the recycling of plastics in a new paradigm, which overturns the existing one: it is not a matter of finding a place for waste, but of understanding how to obtain plastic materials from plastic waste materials or post-consumer materials that fully meet the demands of the market, offering a product of excellent performance and green by nature, because it derives from recycling, a perfect example of a circular economy.
"I chose this path fascinated by the idea of being part of this cultural transformation: I wanted to spend my time, my resources, my skills to be part of a change in society," says Alessia, a 26-year-old from Abruzzo who is studying gasification in semi-fixed bed, a process that transforms waste into new basic chemical products. "The University-Company collaboration platform allowed me to quickly understand the real and concrete applicability of my studies: we need to invest in application solutions that allow us to proceed with energy transition by steps and phases. Big changes are achieved one step at a time, with clear strategies in the short and medium term."
"Developing innovative ideas and providing them to the industry so that it can transfer it to society", is the motto of Reshma Babu, a girl of Indian origin, who lived in Abu Dhabi for 22 years and then, to put it in her own words "by force from her 'comfort zone' - or her country, her family, her people - to come to Italy to study how to recover waste substances contained in civil and industrial treatment waters from a circular economy perspective." Reshma comes from the direct observation of the problem of water scarcity, one of the most precious resources on the planet but of which there is no awareness. "I knew what I wanted," she says. "I came to Europe and found a more advanced society on environmental issues: recycling is more developed, rules include more environmental aspects, consumers are more aware. In Europe, everyone, even unknowingly, does their best not to waste," she says. Leaving us surprised, but also a little proud.
If Reshma has left her two worlds of origin to bring her knowledge to Europe, Antonio Rubino reminds us of where the drive to choose this path came from: from when he was very young, he followed his father, who in his spare time organized awareness-raising days for children on environmental issues, the seed was sowed then. "Today, the new generations must be educated to have this vision; tomorrow is already too late" he says. "School has a fundamental role to make young people understand that we are in an era of energy transition, just as the scientific community has a very important task: to imagine how this transition should take place."
These guys trust the human race, with confidence that can make pulses race. They trust that a solution to the climate crisis can be found. Since the industrial revolution, we have acquired in 150 years knowledge that has allowed us to get where we are today. This same store of knowledge must now help mankind to change perspectives, in a faster time frame. The world must change direction, and must have the courage and strength to do so. On hearing it, it comes to thinking about them in the seats of a United Nations classroom drawing the world of the future, rather than in laboratories. And who knows where we will see them in a very next future.