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Fundamental Research for Sustainability

As scientists we can’t deny our role to the society. We can harness our knowledge for a better environment. The challenge of balancing energy and climate change is not going to fade away in one day, writes Prof. Munmun Ghosh

Munmun Ghosh

14 June, 2023 | 4m read

Over the last century, human activity increase the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2 ), nitrogen, and sulphur oxide causing an irreversible change to the environment. ‘Global warming’, and ‘climate change’ are direct outcomes of these changes. We all are contributing to it through our daily activities by driving cars, using water, electricity etc. Hardly, there can be a single solution for the problems of meeting our future demands and managing the environmental consequences. But there is a sense that ‘we must do something soon’. To find out the most effective solution we need to understand them from the core and that leads to fundamental research in science and technology for sustainability.

Nature is very smart, it produces H2 by the enzyme ‘Hydrogenase’ from hydrogen ion (proton) or FDH (Formatede hydrogenase) which captures atmospheric CO2 and converts it into HCOOH, a valuable feedstock in industry. These enzymes are comprised of iron or nickel coupled with amino acids and these are commonly named ‘Metalloenzymes’. Various studies revealed the mechanism of natural proton reduction. But we are still far to achieve the result of what nature does. There can be many ways scientists are focusing on this field, what we are doing in our lab is called ‘Biomimetic Molecular Catalyses’. Our research involved mimicking these enzymes and finding out the mechanism to search for better catalysts. We are synthesizing metal-based complexes, especially iron, as it is the second most abundant element on earth and developing new materials for the same.

Here we need to remember, that activating CO2 is not an easy job as it requires a huge amount of energy to break the carbon-oxygen bond which means, thermodynamically this molecule is very strong. This type of reaction requires very harsh condition like high temperature and end with a lot of environmentally benign waste products. To overcome this challenge, scientists preferred to do the activation electrochemically, giving current as an energy form. This reaction we claim ‘clean’ and ‘Green’ producing the least amount of side products and giving the highest atom economy. This process is safe and is applicable to industrial scale. In our lab, we are dealing with all the reactions electrochemically, digging into the mechanism and finding out better catalysts than before.

As scientists, we can’t deny our role in society. We can harness our knowledge for a better environment. The challenge of balancing energy and climate change is not going to fade away in one day. But if we don’t start acting from now to understand the system, even in 2050 we will be in the same place and we will be answerable to the next generation. Fundamental research plays a key role here, if we can’t realize how atoms are behaving with each other inside a molecule, how we are going to tame them and use them accordingly? That’s why it is very true that ‘Basic scientific research is scientific capital’.

(The writer is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Ashoka University)

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