First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Steven McCarron
In a sense, the early faith placed in the Solardam project comes as no great surprise. Amsterdam harbours an ever-increasing ethos that renewable energy solutions should not wait for the future but must offer solutions now: even Amsterdam’s City Hall is currently decking out its entire roof with solar panels. It also undoubtedly helps that the parties at the heart of Solardam are some of the world’s top professionals, researchers, students and organisations involved in nanotechnology. Amsterdam is the perfect place for an initiative like Solardam because, not only is it home to two renowned universities – the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Vrije University Amsterdam (VU) – it’s also the base of AMOLF, one of the leading European institutes in nanophotonics and the physics of biomolecular science. The Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) joins these parties to make up Solardam. Situated just a short drive north of Amsterdam, ECN is the largest energy research institute in the Netherlands, with some 500 staff members working on local and international projects that have the power to influence and improve our day-today lives.
Having served as director of AMOLF from 2006 until 2013, Professor Albert Polman is an international star in the science world – as comfortable on a TV chat show as he is working with his students. Currently leading a scientific group focusing on photovoltaics at the institute, it’s logical that he’s also a guiding figure within Solardam, collaborating on a number of the consortium’s ongoing projects. “Solardam’s subject matter is actually very broad,” he explains. “Yes, it’s about solar panels. But it’s also about solar fuels: how can we make fuel from sunlight? And it’s also about photosynthesis and photocatalysis: how do you use light to make bacteria or some other biological material that you can then burn as a fuel? Interestingly, many of these topics have a lot in common – like how do we capture the light from the sun, can we change the colour of the light from the sun, or how can this light move on a very small scale? It’s all connected.” That’s why, in just a short space of time, the Solardam consortium has become home to more than 100 researchers from physics, chemistry and biology backgrounds – an energetic group of talents hailing from all over Europe, Asia, North America and Australia.
Together they offer complementary expertise in a host of scientific disciplines relevant to energy research, including nanophotonics, photovoltaics, catalysis and photocatalysis, photosynthesis and multiscale modelling. Dr. Mark Knight is one of the postdoctoral researchers busy within Solardam. The American researcher completed his studies in Minnesota and Texas before making a dream move to Amsterdam Science Park to work alongside Polman at AMOLF in 2014. Knight speaks with boundless enthusiasm about photovoltaics and nanophotonic structures, but when asked what this consortium has really brought to the table, he’s lightning quick to highlight a new ease of collaboration and communication. “There’s a conversation group of postdoctoral researchers at the heart of Solardam,” he tells us. “Whenever anybody has a problem, they’ll share it with the group. It opens up this huge breadth of experience, so you get back some great answers. For example, I know very little about solar fuels. But one of the solar-fuels people was asking if there is a way to use fractal nanostructures for light harvesting, and that is something I know about. So we have some very dynamic sharing going on between researchers who, without Solardam, would have probably never met.”
The consortium’s collaborative research is set to have a massive environmental impact, both at home and abroad. For example, Amsterdam’s own ambitious climate goals include a target for solar panels to provide power for 85,000 homes in 2020 and 450,000 in 2040. Compared to only 7,500 today, that’s a substantial acceleration in the uptake of renewable energy. One of the most viable ways to achieve this is through investment in successful research projects within Solardam, which will in turn spawn new start-ups and drive private companies to deliver commercial products that are both economically and environmentally interesting. “The Netherlands is transitioning to green energy,” concludes Knight. “Of course it’s happening all over the world as well. But the Netherlands is at the heart of the transition. We’re investing heavily in people to solve nano problems, bridging research institutes like the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) and AMOLF, and it’s happening now with Solardam, too. We’re bringing together the right people from around the globe to carry out research. And they’ll make the breakthroughs.”