Meet LICROX’s External Advisory Board: Dr. Emanuele Instuli

Dr. Instuli is a group leader at De Nora, working in the electrochemistry field. He obtained his PhD in Chemistry from the Università degli Studi di Padova in 2008, after which he worked for three years as a research associate at Imperial College London working in the group of Tim Albrecht on Nanofabrication. He then joined De Nora in Italy, where he is Team Leader of the New Application Research group and Analytical Chemistry group. Instuli is also responsible for two PhD students employed within the ITN funded project ELCOREL, focused on oxygen-evolving anodes for alkaline water electrolysis. His main research topics are DSA electrodes for oxygen and chlorine evolution; Gas Diffusion Electrodes for oxygen reduction and CO2 reduction reactions; industrial test protocols; large scale electrodes’ manufacturing processes. Dr. Instuli recently obtained an Executive MBA from Politecnico di Milano.

How would you define LICROX in three words?

Innovative, visionary (because what LICROX is trying to achieve doesn’t work so far at a big scale), and challenging.

What advantages do photoelectrochemical cells (PEC) present when compared to other technologies?

By the time PECs will be completely developed and operative, they will be extremely useful for chemical transformation processes, as the production and utilization of electrical current will happen in one single machine. For example, to achieve the conversion of CO2 into valuable chemicals, everything will take place in one single device. The advantage, as with all photoelectrical chemistry, is that the process avoids the use of different sections to create the final product. This way, PECs will decrease expenses, as companies won’t need new nor more components to do the same work because PECs will avoid intermediate steps.

What do you think is the best formula to foster collaborative research between industry and academia?

Projects such as LICROX, funded by the European Commission, are excellent opportunities to bring together universities and research centres with companies – especially when considering that having a good mixture of competencies is positively evaluated, and so the funding is only granted when the consortium is well balanced and there are strong interactions and synergies within the partners. I think that this strategy is a great way to support the interaction between companies and universities and to foster innovation. But I also feel these collaborations could be even more effective when companies are leading the projects, tailoring the research to concrete results with a strong focus on commercial exploitation. Unfortunately, this is not happening so often as there are tons of administrative hurdles associated with leading the funded projects. This kind of company-led collaborations would also bring innovative success by creating the right product needed for a specific moment.

The EU Green Deal focuses on sustainability and climate protection. Which technologies do you see as crucial for achieving the goals of the Green Deal?

To me, there are potentially two key technologies that are envisioned by these policies. The first one is Water Electrolysis to establish the use of hydrogen as a mainstream energy vector. The second technology will be the direct electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide. From one side, it would decrease the CO2 released onto the atmosphere (not only capturing it but actually decreasing its content) while at the same time adding value to the CO2 by incorporating it in useful chemicals as fuel or feedstock for the chemical industry. For example, we could produce CO or formic acid that would be useful building blocks to synthesize chemicals or fuels like ethanol or other longer-chain alcohols, further decreasing the need for fossil fuels.

From your point of view, what are the most important scientific areas on which funding should be spent?

I am sure that the most important advances for humankind today will come from research in medicine and health, with close connections to digitalization, robotics and material sciences. At the same time, we need to deploy a coherent strategic plan for the energy transition into a sustainable landscape. Given that today the most advanced technologies to exploit renewable resources (wind farming and solar photovoltaics at first, as they are already mature technologies) are transforming energy to electricity, it will be critical in the near future to transform this energy vector into chemicals as a versatile form of long-term energy storage. This is why electrochemistry – and photoelectrochemistry – are going to play a bigger and bigger role. It is going to be a new age for electrochemistry, and I believe that thanks to this electricity abundance, we’ll soon have a “Renaissance age” of electrochemistry. We just need to make (photo)electrochemical reactions efficient and cheap enough within an economically sustainable supply chain. Both energy efficiency and economic sustainability of a chemical process are scientific problems, strictly related to each other, that needs expertise in catalysis, material science and engineering to be solved.

What does serving on the LICROX board give you?

It’s my first time working on an Advisory Board for a project, as an individual it has broadened my scientific overview because although I’ve always worked on electrochemistry, I’ve never worked in photo-electrochemistry, so this is going to give me some new background. For De Nora, PECs are something we want to keep under the radar – even if they are at a low TRL (Technology Readiness Level). It is important to be on the edge of research on all related fields: in this case going beyond electrochemistry and shifting to photochemistry, which is something we are looking at in our business unit dedicated to water treatment. I think my presence on the Advisory Board will be of help especially in the final stages of the project, once screening tests and feasibility studies are ready and plans for further development of the technology will be sketched. I’m looking forward to participating in these discussions around the scaling up of the device and on-road mapping towards the industrialization of the technology.