Fuelling the Energy Transition

Dr. Gianluca Ambrosetti holds a PhD in Nanotechnology from EPFL Lausanne. In 2016, he co-founded the ETH Spin-off Synhelion, which develops technologies for the production of carbon-neutral solar fuels, and of which he is presently the CEO. He believes that the analytical capabilities and fundamental understanding of energy gained by studying physics are an invaluable guide for the development of renewable technologies – and points out the important role of entrepreneurship for mastering the energy transition.

What was your first encounter with the concepts of sustainability and global warming? 

I was first taught about this in elementary school, even though it was much more debated then. You had global warming, global cooling and all kinds of theories. There were unclear claims and many emotional debates. It was more of a fringe thing, but we were all exposed to it and I thought: There is already clear evidence of a problem coming, and it is our duty to try and understand this, to understand what we can do, with or without sacrifices. 

During my master thesis, back in 2002, I read a car catalogue that contained an analysis of hydrogen mobility, and in particular a comparison of the different ways of propelling cars – using hydrogen, conventional engines and electricity. This was sort of a revelation to me. I liked this way of looking at things: Investigating the complete product chain, doing a lifecycle analysis, and so on. This really intrigued me.  

Back then the debate about global warming was mostly at an early stage, and it was often dominated by emotion. Not because of global warming itself, but the way of trying to tackle issues. Most studies were based on very simple “back of the envelope” calculations. But somehow this was the big inspiration for me to look at this in more depth. I eventually did so two years later by doing a study on hydrogen mobility. This was the foundation of my work in this area.  

Why did you choose to study physics?

I’ve always felt that I don’t fully understand things. I wanted to go deeper, and this turned into an evolution process that brought me to ask more fundamental questions. I personally think that physics is the best tool that we have to describe reality. Physics gives the deepest answers that science has. I don’t remember most of the calculations anymore, but the beauty of physics and the sensation of going into a fundamental depth is something that will never leave me. It still guides me now . Going into depth with scientific rigour starting from unbiased assumptions remains a necessary condition to me. 

There is a beauty in trying to be sustainable, having a circular system, instead of consuming something that is finite

How did your motivation and aspiration evolve during your studies? Or did you have a goal that never changed?  

I must admit that I always imagined that I would somehow land where I landed. I always thought of going to the industry, because I liked technology, all forms of it. When I started my studies, I became more interested in the fundamental questions, which brought me to theoretical physics – my master thesis was about the charge loss of black holes, so in the area of quantum field theory in curved space time. But I was interested in other things as well, such as materials science. Nanotechnology was something that fascinated me for a longer time, and I did my PhD thesis in this area. But I somehow didn’t see a way forward there for me. 

Did sustainability play a role in your career choice, or where you at this point where you thought: This is what I’m interested in, but I also want it to be something related to sustainability. Or was it just your natural interest that navigated you? 

It was a bit of both. I think mastering the energy transition is a grand and beautiful challenge. You can even not believe in global warming, but there is a beauty in trying to be sustainable, having a circular system, instead of consuming something that is finite. I like this aspect of beauty, which is also a reason why I was drawn to physics. It might sound a bit spoiled, but I do think that the aesthetic aspect can also have a driving effect. However, doing something because of the beauty of it is also indisputable.  

I find that climate activists are really missing out on this argument. There are many more advantages to going sustainable than just stopping climate change. It would raise overall life quality to have less pollution, it would be better for the local community to produce locally, and so on. This is really not emphasised enough. 

Yes, the argument, which is brought up the most, which is that we will all go towards doom, is never a constructive message. A lot of people who strike for the climate get caught in the dynamic of these extreme positions, which are comfortable. But there are also many smart people who are doing much more, from modelling global warming to finding solutions. And there are people putting money into this, we are talking about trillions that are being invested in the energy transition. There’s plenty of opportunities for businesses like Synhelion.  

How did the idea for Synhelion’s technology emerge? 

I was already working in solar and got the chance to know the research of Prof. Aldo Steinfeld on renewable energy carriers, including solar fuels. I thought that this liquid fuel approach for storing energy was something that is totally being missed out. Using solar fuels is unavoidable because of their unique attributes, which are very useful for aviation, for example. For years electrification was hailed as the way to go, maybe even hydrogen, whereas the combustion engine was seen as pure evil. The thing is, it is just a thermodynamic device. They are only problematic when they burn fossil fuel. I saw this as a hidden gem, a hidden opportunity.  

How did you get from this idea to founding a company?  

From the beginning on, the idea was to set up a company. The start of Synhelion was an entrepreneurial effort to bring this technology to the market. We set out by finding an industrial partner, which we found in an Italian oil and gas company.  

What is needed in order to understand how to make an impact is the rigor, the logical capabilities and the analytical strength of a physicist

Which skills from your physics studies have proven to be the most useful, and why? 

There are two dimensions here. One is that the components which we develop are based on physical principles. The solar receiver, ironically enough, exploits the greenhouse gas effect. The underlying effects are absorption, which is described by quantum mechanics, and radiative heat transfer, which is described by thermodynamics. Obviously, this involved physics which I had learned in my studies.  

Furthermore, it is essential to know what is physical or not. There are companies which propose you things that violate the first principle of thermodynamics. Some of the things that are obvious to you, such as the fact that solar energy is coming in with a certain power per square meter, and that we need to harness this, are not so clear to others. You will have people coming and asking you to do the same with one tenth of the land and 50% higher efficiency – a physicists knows right away that this does not work. This is a central part or physics at the end: Energy conservation and energy transformation are such deep physical principles, they are invaluable guides. You need to have these in sight, in the mazes and minefields of many things that are unclear. 

More broadly, what is needed in order to understand how to make an impact is the rigor, the logical capabilities and the analytical strength of a physicist, the ability to analyse complex systems, to work out several pathways, and also knowing what is physical or not. Even when not using them directly, the skills of a physicist are a very powerful tool. 

What advice would you give to physics students who struggle to combine their career with their values?  

Truth be told, working in physics itself is very hard. There is a very small number of places where you can really employ your deepest knowledge. Except in fundamental research, you will never use it anywhere, even if you go into quantum computing. There, the challenge right now is more of an engineering problem. But what is important is this formal thinking, and this is actually very general. You can work for an energy company, which might not involve theoretical physics, but they need your skills to do an energy analysis, because the concept of energy is deeply rooted into the mind of a physicist. There are many possibilities to work in the energy sector and they would be happy to have you.  

Many solutions have already been developed, but expanding them to a global scale is a daunting challenge

What do you think is the best way that physicists can contribute to sustainability? 

The best way to contribute is to get to work, to set up companies. Many solutions have already been developed, but expanding them to a global scale is a daunting challenge and we need creative ideas, we need people for this. Also, a lot more can be done beyond what already exists. There are so many exciting things to explore, like nuclear fusion. Some projects will not work out in the end, but the more people try, the more will succeed. 

On the other hand, it is also very important to make changes in your own smaller reality. At the end of the day, if every individual starts to do their own local effort, this would already bring us a huge step forward, and can also be very rewarding. 

It is about your inner drive and about actually doing things

What gave you the confidence that you can make a difference? 

It’s not about how revolutionary an idea is. It is about your inner drive and about actually doing things, building things. There are so few people that try to set up something themselves, because it is much more comfortable to simply have somebody else telling you what to do. But this entrepreneurial aspect, doing a project, setting something up, its important. And people will follow you because you do this. I also think it is just a beautiful thing to do, and you are not alone. You can cofound, and then you have your first colleagues. The challenging part might be to convince investors, but that can be done.  

It’s not that important to have the breakthrough idea. Sometimes we used technology that was already developed at ETH, sometimes we came up with our own ideas. The research is there, there are plenty of things that are happening at ETH, you can try to bring one of them out of the lab and into the world. There is also climeworks, for example. They started out from the same lab as us, and look where they are now.  

Of course you are not always going to win. Many people don’t try because founding a company is risky. At the time when we started Synhelion the chances seemed immensely higher that we would not succeed. But this was also about the thrill, about giving and seeing how it grows. And of course, you can also have success. 

About the Author

Petia Arabadjieva holds a BSc Physics degree from ETH Zurich and is currently pursuing a master degree in Quantum Engineering. She is highly interested in the use of quantum algorithms to perform tasks which are practically impossible using classical computers – and how this could help us to develop sustainable technologies. Petia is also a member of the Sustainability Committee of the physics department at ETH.