Green Chemist: AI Utopia and Beyond Periodic Table - Martyn Poliakoff | Endgame #130 (Luminaries)
I have formulated what I call the Robin Hood question, which is: how can we give to the poor without robbing the rich? So what we have to do, given the reserve of elements that we have in the world, is use them more efficiently so that we can give the rich people a standard of living that is comparable to what they have at the moment but raise the standard of living of those who are poor. "(being) not obliged to swear allegiance to a master." Hi friends and fellows. Welcome to this special series of conversations involving personalities coming from a number of campuses, including Stanford University. The purpose of the series is really to unleash thought-provoking ideas that I think would be of tremendous value to you.
I wanna thank you of your support so far, and welcome to this special series. GITA WIRJAWAN: Hi, I'm in Nottingham at the University of Nottingham, and I'm honored to have a Research Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham by the name of Martyn Poliakoff. Martyn, thank you so much for the time and the honor.
MARTYN POLIAKOFF: Welcome to Nottingham. - Thank you. You brought the sun for us. - Yeah, well, you brought the sun from Indonesia.
- Thank you. I managed to take a walk. It's a beautiful campus. - Yes. We like to think it's the most beautiful campus in England. - Yeah. I want to ask you about how you became what you are, and I've heard stories about how you got fixated with science, particularly chemistry. How did it get started? Well, my father was born in Russia and my mother was English, and my mother trained as an actress, so she was not a scientist, and my grandfather, my Russian grandfather, was a brilliant physicist.
They're working in industries, so perhaps you would describe him more as an electrical engineer, and my father also trained as a physicist but went into industry, in fact working with his father. And so, it was decided when I was very small, that's 4 years old, that I would be a scientist, and of course, I thought that I would be a physicist like them, though I didn't know what physics was. And when I was young, children were not taught science until they were teenagers. And so, though I started reading a few books about science and when I was about 12, I was at a boarding school, and I was doing an experiment with a pendulum. I had borrowed a stopwatch from one of my friends, and I'd made the pendulum out of a chain and the pieces from my geometry set, the compass set square, and so on, and I was timing it. And one of the teachers came up and said, "Stop doing that! You should be doing your Latin."
And I realized now that the best way to make children interested in science is to tell them they're forbidden from doing it, because then it becomes something naughty that adults do, like smoking or drinking or whatever. So I was hooked on the idea. But unfortunately, when I did start doing science, my math wasn't really good enough to do physics, but I had a very good memory, so I found chemistry easy, and this was combined with having a passion that I still have for buying books, particularly second-hand books.
And when I was a young teenager, I bought lots and lots of second-hand chemistry books, read them, and remembered most of them. So at school, I knew much more than my chemistry teacher. And sadly, he died in January, and his funeral was last week. But I was a terrible pupil in the chemistry classes.
I talked to my friend all the time, but I could answer all the questions except once, and I got a question wrong, and I have never seen anyone look so happy as the teacher. But it's an interesting thing that if we ask either our students here or senior chemists in industry or academia why they became chemists, most of them say because they had an inspirational teacher. And some years ago, there was a magazine that was the house magazine of what is now the Royal Society of Chemistry; it was called "Chemistry in Britain". And somebody wrote in to say that he had had the teacher who was demonstrating the reaction of sodium with water, and there was a very big explosion, and the teacher was pouring blood, but he still managed to produce a piece of litmus paper from his pockets and say, "Look, the water is alkaline," and the writer of the letter said he thought such passion showed that there was something in the subject. Now, fortunately, I've never been in that situation of unexpected explosions and so on. But, I think, it’s a good way to inspire people is to have enthusiastic teachers.
Do you sense that in the current era there is less appetite or interest for the kinds of things that you basically got excited about a long time ago, and if so, why? No. Well, I don't think so. I mean, you have to remember that I started learning chemistry over 60 years ago, and life has changed. And if you think about the 60 years before I started chemistry, this was 12 years before the first world war, so things changed, and it would be very sad if the things that excited me were exactly the same as the things that excite young people now because science has advanced and we know so much more than we did, and people now use calculators and computers. When I was a schoolboy, we were taken to see the computer of London University; it was University College London, which occupied two rooms bigger than this, and we stood in reverential silence while the computer played a little tune, and we thought this was a miracle.
Now, you can get a birthday card that will play a happy birthday (song) and people think it's normal. So I don't think it is in any way bad that people are worried the interests have changed, but what I hope is that modern people will look at their smartphones and ask: What's inside it? Where did the chemicals and elements come from to build it, and so on. And so, what is needed is a desire for people to learn, and I think that's quite as strong as it was in my day. The difference probably is that nowadays everybody learns science, whereas in my day science was quite specialized, and in my school there was quite a small group who studied physics and chemistry, and the others, like you, were studying music or whatever. And so, science was a much narrower preserve. But then we didn't necessarily have such existential challenges for the planet as we did then.
The population of the planet has expanded nearly 4 times since I was born. But the reserves of chemical elements have not changed. So, providing for these people is a huge challenge: giving them the chemicals and medicines they deserve.
I want to go through the chemical elements. If we take a look at this universe, hydrogen is the most reserved, it makes up about 73-74 percent, then helium is about 20 something percent, and carbon, then oxygen. Why is it like that as opposed to differently? You're asking an important cosmological question, of which I'm not a cosmologist. And the reason and the elements synthesized in stars and hydrogen forms… Well, essentially, when the universe started, it was all hydrogen, and then gradually, the elements have gotten more and more complicated. The more interesting question in my view is not why the elements are distributed the way they are in the universe. But why do we have such a richness of elements on our planet? Because that is not entirely obvious and there are various theories that some of these elements have been brought by meteorites and asteroids and collisions when planet Earth was forming or after it formed.
And so, the distribution of elements on our planet is rather different. There is quite a nice periodic table, which I will show you. - I'm terrible with this. - No no no. Well, this is quite an unusual periodic table. - This is very different. - Well, the order of the elements…
- Oh, the occupation of the element. Okay. - But it shows on the logarithmic scale the abundance of the different elements and how much is available. So logarithmic means that the tiny elements down here, like francium, are much bigger on this periodic table than they should be. And you can see that helium here is orange, showing that the reserves of helium on the planet are actually depleting quite fast because helium is the only element which can escape the atmosphere. If you have a helium balloon saying, “Happy 21st birthday” and this bursts, the helium goes into the atmosphere and eventually goes into outer space. - Does it convert to a different element? - No, because it's light it just floats out of the atmosphere.
- Okay. But it's still there? - Well, it goes into outer space. So it exists, but not for us. It's a bit like if you drop something in the street, it still exists, but you don't have it anymore. Explain the basic concept of the conservation of mass and energy.
They stay or remain constant, right? If we talk about first of all conservation of energy, what this means is that you cannot create energy or destroy it except in a rather special case of hydrogen bonds, which we can discuss later. But the example of this is that if two people… If somebody's running towards you in the street and they go knock into you, they transfer some of the energy that they've got to you, and you probably fall backwards. But you cannot create energy except by carrying out some sort of chemical reaction which releases energy, and it releases energy because you have the strength of the bonds, say, between carbon and hydrogen in petrol, and then carbon and oxygen in the water, and the CO2 that you make. But it is one of the fundamental principles of chemistry that you cannot create or destroy elements. And one example which people used to use is that in the old days, we used to have flash lamps on our cameras, not the electronic ones that you have now, but ones that had magnesium and oxygen inside, and when you put a current through it, the magnesium burned, and there was a big flash of light. But if you weighed the flash lamp before and after the reaction, it weighed exactly the same because no mass had got in or out unless the glass broke.
And so, we cannot create or destroy elements. We can create or destroy molecules because these are elements joined together, and just like any sort of construction toy, you can take it to bits and build something else. But the problem for our planet is that we only have certain reserves of elements, and the difficulty is that the reserves we have, say, whether they are mines and so on.
The elements are quite concentrated, and in a gold mine, a silver mine, or an oil field, they're not terribly concentrated. I mean, in some of the platinum mines, for example in South Africa, you might get seven grams of platinum per ton of rock but it's still relatively concentrated. The problem is that we use these elements, for example, there are 31 elements in the smartphone, and there isn't very much of most of the elements. There's quite a lot of carbon in the plastic case and so on, but there's only a little bit of gold and so on. And then when we throw this away, the concentration of gold is quite low, so we're taking a concentrated deposit and diluting it, and trying to get things back from a diluted situation is very energy intensive, and perhaps the best example are the elements in the catalytic converter in your car, where there's platinum and rhodium, and some of that platinum and rhodium gets blown out with the exhaust, so there are tiny amounts of platinum and rhodium in the dust along the roadside. But to collect up all that dust and get the metal back would be an enormous task and not really possible.
So what we have to try and do is avoid diluting these elements in such a way that we can't get them back. Do you sense that the industrialists are moving in the right direction in terms of making sure that whatever industrial products they create or produce are done in such a way that it's good for the planet from an elemental creation standpoint? I think beyond that is that perhaps industry is beginning to think about this. For a long time, they haven't cared at all, partly because people want the cheapest possible products and it is also a question of education of the public, and what has been really exciting in the last few years is that it has suddenly become clear that changing the public's attitude is much easier than one thought.
There are two examples: there is the example of the diesel engines in Volkswagen cars, where it was discovered that the software used to manage the engine could cheat during the testing of the engine. And this has caused a huge backlash against diesel cars. I bought a diesel car because it produces less carbon dioxide per kilometer than a petrol car, but now almost nobody buys diesel cars.
And I keep mine going because I think it would be more expensive for the planet to recycle it than to use it for the small amount that I need to cut. But the other example is the television series of the naturalist David Attenborough, who had a series of television programs which I think were probably shown in Indonesia called "The Blue Planet 2", which changed people's attitudes to plastics completely. The problem is that this has made them think that all plastic is bad, rather than thinking that the way we move plastic is bad. And then, if you take the example of a plastic bottle, it's really good.
I mean, it is very light, and the problem is that it is difficult to recycle these, and people just use it once and throw it away, whereas in fact we should be trying to use them much more by reusing them over time. I have a bottle; it's in the other room, where I have set the label on it saying "Greening Beeston". Beeston is the area of Nottingham where I live, and I reuse this over and over again.
And I fill the water from the tap. So it is not difficult to change the public's attitude. What is much more difficult is to change people's behavior. I mean, it is less of a problem now, but when I was young or even someone older, a lot of people smoked, and they knew smoking was bad for them but they still went on smoking. And so, changing the way that people behave is harder than changing their attitude.
And politically, it's not always obvious what to do. And there is a very nice story from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where around a hundred years ago, and maybe a bit longer, there was a problem with rats, so they decided they would pay a small amount of money for every dead rat that people handed in. And then they discovered that people had started rat farms to breed rats, so they could get money. So it is sometimes politicism… - This is a behavioral issue. - Yes. - It's not a scientific issue. - Yes.
I've got to confess that I was not a very good chemistry student, and one of the difficult areas of chemistry was just comprehending the periodic table. For the young, not for me, for them to be able to relate to the periodic table, how would you explain to them: What does it mean? What does it tell them in terms of their day-to-day life? - It's a very interesting question. - I know some people have even made a song out of it. - Yes. There are several songs. The most famous song is by the American mathematician Tom Lehrer, "The Song of the Element."
I don't think his song is of the least use in understanding the periodic table. I suppose the first thing you have to do is relate it to something that the young people know, and that is going to depend on the different cultures they come from. I mean, many children, for example, use Lego bricks to make things, and you could say the periodic table is rather like the catalog of Lego bricks for making chemicals, medicines, and so on, and you need the bits of that brick, some of those bricks, then you can put them together. For those who are more artistic like you, you could perhaps say that these are like the notes and the scale of music, and you use different notes to put together to make different tunes, or the different colors that you use on the palette to make that. You know, the Greeks thought you could make everything out of four elements: earth, fire, water, and air, which in a way sounds silly until you realize that the colors on our phone or TV screen are made up of only three colors: red, blue, well, four; there's black as well.
But I think in order to explain the periodic table, you first of all have to get over the edge of atoms, and the way that the Greeks thought of it is that if you take something and you cut it in half and you cut it in half again and again, there must be some point when you can't cut it anymore. But I think the other thing is the idea that the chemicals we use are made up of different atoms. I think one of the concepts that is quite hard to get over to people is that everything is made out of chemicals. - People don't know that, they don't realize that. I mean, The Royal Society of Chemistry had a prize of a million pounds for anybody who could produce a lump of something that did not contain atoms. But I think even now it's quite hard for people to understand that...
Well, it's not difficult to understand that perhaps their medicine contains a chemical. But it's a bit hard to understand it ... What does it mean to know the mass of a certain element? How does that relate to the day-to-day life of a young kid or a young man or a woman? I think that knowing the mass of the elements is not very important. Having said that, one of our early videos (in Periodic Videos) was about atomic weights, and they had been… It was decided that some of the atomic weights that were accepted had to be changed slightly because of the latest research. And I made a video about this, and it had to be recorded three times before I was sufficiently enthusiastic about what I thought was a rather boring topic. And a week later I was in South Africa, and a teenager and her mother came up to me and said, "Thank you for that wonderful video on the atomic weights."
But I think the reason why it is important to young people is that you can say, "Look, there are all these different atoms," and you have to explain to them how the atoms are different. A simple thing for them to understand is that one type of atom is a bit lighter than another one because they know that the baby is lighter than the professor or whatever, so they have the concept that things can differ with weight, or they know that a gold coin weighs more than a low-value coin. But I think the precise number of the weight of the atom is not so important. Is it possible that there is an element in the universe that may not be reflected at the periodic table? I think the answer is no. But, there are elements that can still all be synthesized, but these are so-called super heavy elements and they are elements which are short-lived and do not decay naturally.
Because for an element to occur naturally, it needs to have existed for the lifetime of our planet, if not longer. And so, there are some elements like plutonium, which is relatively short-lived compared to the lifetime of platinum on our planet, so that you don't find plutonium naturally in mines and so on. But I think your question about whether there might be other elements that exist but are not in the periodic table is… I can't think of a very good analogy but it is like saying, “Are there any numbers that we don't know?” And because we understand the concept of numbers and where they come from, and therefore we know that you might be able to make a number of 1.17 or whatever the width,
which could fit between two other numbers, but the integer numbers are one, two, and three, and we're not going to suddenly discover that there's an extra number between 14 and 15 that we didn't realize. Is there still a lot of wiggle room for further synthesizing a combination of the elements on the periodic table? The simple synthesis would have been mixing iron with carbon to make steel. Have we done such… - Well, first of all, again, you have such interesting questions. - I'm just curious. - Well, steel is not a compound, it is a mixture of elements and the… But to answer your question, I don't know if you did math at school; you might have done questions: "I have a drawer full of different colored socks. How many different ways are there of taking out two socks?" And so, if you have a palette of 19 stable elements, how many different ways are there of combining these elements? There is going to be a huge number.
In my lifetime, the number of known chemicals that have been made has gone up by a factor of, I don't know, somewhere between 20 and 100. Mostly because in the pharmaceutical industry, they have used robots to make huge numbers of relatively similar molecules, in the hope that one of them might turn out to be a blockbuster drug. So most of these compounds turn out to be useless, and they're probably made once and never made again. And I have been to facilities where the pharmaceutical companies have huge stacks with several million compounds where they might have quite small samples of them.
But sadly, somebody thinks that compound might be interesting, so they can dial up on the computer, and the computer will find which shelf it's on, and they can try doing a test with it. So I don't think we're going to run out of compounds to make. But just like with the words that we have, we can write things that are interesting or things that are very boring, but there are only certain combinations of words that are both reading and simply, there are only certain combinations of atoms first of all that might stick together. And even if they do, that might have interesting properties that we don't have in something equivalent already. How do you see the application of artificial intelligence in chemistry? Well, there are lots of different ways. The first way, which is in some ways quite basic, is that when we do complicated chemical reactions, there are many different parameters to adjust.
There is temperature if it's a process where the chemicals are flowing through it, the rate at which it flows through the pressure, the relative concentrations of the things that are going to react together, and so on. And artificial intelligence is much quicker in trying to find the optimum combination than people are because we tend to think of things in a very linear manner. We will look at the effect of temperature, and then we'll look at the effect of pressure, but in fact, the temperature and pressure may be related. So this is a bit like… I can't think of a good analogy, but you can see that the computer can adjust these things better.
I suppose the best example I can think of quickly is flying an airliner, where you have to adjust the speed, the flaps, the distribution of fuel in the tanks, and so on. And this used to be done by the pilot, the flight engineer, and so on. And now there's a computer that deals with it, and the pilot much of the time doesn't even need to be in the cockpit. I was on one flight from Canada to London, and about an hour before landing, the pilot appeared next to my seat and said his father was a YouTube fan and could he have a selfie, and I wondered who was flying the plane. The other application of artificial intelligence, which is perhaps more interesting in some ways is the fact that a lot of molecules have complicated shapes, and chemists spend a long time thinking about what is the best route from simple chemicals to make the molecule we want.
And this is done quite elegantly often in plants and animals, and plants can synthesize all sorts of interesting chemicals. The rainforests in Indonesia are full of plants making chemicals which we don't even know what they are yet, let alone how they make them. But what artificial intelligence can do in principle is to look at all the reactions that have been done so far and suggest routes to making these chemicals that chemists might not have thought of. It is rather like artificial intelligence playing chess or Go where the… Certainly in the case of Go, the artificial intelligence has invented new moves or new strategies that nobody thought of for a thousand years, the game has been played.
- By doing methodology. - Yes. So I think artificial intelligence will become very important. You see it more as utopian or dystopian? No, I think it will be very positive. The other way that people are thinking of using computers is that if you think about cookery books making food, there are lots of books with recipes of food, and I'm sure there are for Indonesian food, but if two people do the same recipe from the book, it often turns out somewhat different, not exactly the same. And in chemistry, when chemists publish a paper saying, "I've made this new molecule; here's what I did," quite often, if somebody else tries to do it, they don't get (it); they will probably get the same chemicals but not such good results, or they may not make it work at all.
So there is an idea to try and build machines that could alternate making these chemicals, and obviously different people will have different machines. But the hope is that the recipe could be written in some sort of computer language, so you would load this program in, and out would come paracetamol or whatever you want. And I think it is really important that computation is being applied to chemistry, and my young Indonesian colleague that you met, Melanie, is working in the area of computational chemistry, where now you can do calculations to work out the properties of chemicals before you've made them and answer questions like, "Is it actually worth making this?" Because it will have whatever properties I want. This is still quite an early stage, but I see that it is getting much more advanced as time goes on. And then computing is getting far more powerful and much cheaper, and I think that this offers great opportunities for countries that are developing their chemical capabilities in Africa and Southeast Asia because one of the difficulties in Europe is that we have very established chemical industries. So, introducing new things means abandoning the plans or whatever in which huge sums have already been invested.
Whereas if you don't have such plans, you can then rethink how you're going to do it. You can create a completely different blueprint. This will basically lead up to an area about which you've been very passionate: sustainability. And we've been talking a lot about greening the planet, including in the context of Africa and hopefully Southeast Asia. What's your take on how you think the planet could get cleaner? I mean, if we take a look at the carbon mission print, there's been about 16 to 1700 gigatons of carbon that have been emitted ever since 4.6 billion years ago.
And is there a prospect of becoming a better citizen? You've raised a huge number of different topics. The first point, which is quite important, is that, sadly, there are global aspirations that everybody should live like Americans, and the way that Americans live is… Well, I can't generalize for all Americans. But the general concept of having huge towns with everybody traveling in their own cars and so on is not only unsustainable but also in many ways stupid. And just to give you a very concrete example, I first went to China in 1998.
And I was really quite excited because next to the institute where I was working or visiting, there was a whole row of shops, and there were people there repairing bicycles and repairing all sorts of things to reuse, and when I went back 18 months later, all the shops had gone, and there was an 8-lane highway full of cars going. And that seems to me to typify everything that is wrong with how we're trying to develop. You'll probably be just about old enough to remember that when mobile phones started, people got really excited because my phone was smaller than yours. - My old phone was this big. - Yes, and they got smaller and smaller. - Thanks to the chemist. - Yes. Nowadays, people say, "My phone's bigger than yours. It has a bigger screen or whatever."
And it is ludicrous if you think that... I don't know how many old phones you have in drawers at home. - Probably ten. - Yes. And so, there is no reason why we shouldn't have a phone that can keep going much longer, that it's easy to change the battery or to increase the memory, and so on, rather than throwing the whole thing away.
And it is said that there are more people in the world now using smartphones than there are using toothbrushes. And I don't know whether this is true or not, but quite often on their television programs, which show European presenters visiting some remote village in Africa, you see people lighting fires in primitive ways and so on, and then the camera pans around, and you see all the people living in the village filming it on their smartphones. What I think is important is that we have the United Nations sustainable development goals, and I'm quite proud that my colleagues and I, but driven by my colleagues, have started teaching chemistry in the context of the sustainable development goals, asking the students to think what are the impacts of this particular chemical activity. And what is surprising for them is that chemistry impacts on all sorts of things which you might not expect, for example, gender diversity.
And one of the reasons that chemistry can really impact gender diversity is because in many communities in less developed countries, women spend a huge amount of time fetching and carrying water. So, if chemists can provide clean water in an affordable way so that people don't have to walk kilometers and kilometers to fetch the water, this could have a huge impact. Similarly, many people cook on stoves burning wood or cattle dung, which generates a lot of smoke in there, aware of their living and that smoke is very bad for health, so finding cleaner ways of cooking and so on. I think we need to think of ways that we can improve the quality of life, particularly for the poorest people in the world.
Now the global population is 8 billion, and I can't remember whether it's 1.5 or 1.7 billion people who are profoundly poor. And I don't know what the definition of profoundly poor is, but... - It's less than one dollar a day. - Well, my working definition is slightly different.
It's somebody who knows everything they own. So, I don't know about you, but I couldn't say how many socks I own or how many spoons I own. There's somebody can list everything. And so, what we have to do is find ways that we can provide for these people. And because I'm from Nottingham, the home of Robin Hood, I have formulated what I call the Robin Hood question, which is: how can we give to the poor without robbing the rich? So what we have to do, given the reserve of elements that we have in the world, is use them more efficiently so that we can give the rich people a standard of living that is comparable to what they have at the moment but raise the standard of living of those who are poor. Just intuitively, at the rate that poor and developing economies they have the aspiration of developing, and development unfortunately or fortunately has to depend on carbon emissions for a good while.
So how do you draw the line and create a balance between growth and cleanliness? - It does, to some extent. But the country I knew most about is Ethiopia because my son taught physics there for two and a half years, living in a rural town where he was the only European for some time, and you can see there, above the room, that says: "Green Chemistry", is an announcement in Amharic for the first green chemistry lecture in Ethiopia. The point is that Ethiopia generates a large amount of its electricity through hydroelectricity. And the tourist slogan from Ethiopia is "13 months of sunshine."
The reason it's 13 months is that they have a rather unusual calendar that has 13 months rather than 12. But many of the poorest countries have very bright climates with a lot of sunlight, and therefore there are opportunities for using solar power to generate electricity and also for using light to promote chemical reactions. I mean, after all, we all exist on the planet because plants use photosynthesis to release oxygen and also to make the material that we eat. And unfortunately, it is slightly more complicated than just using sunlight to make chemicals because the business model for a chemical company is slightly different from the business model of a tree. I mean, a tree can say, "Well, the weather isn't very good today, so I quit making a thing," but if you've got wages to pay your employees, you can't.
- You get shareholders demanding profitability. - Well, that is really one of the problems in the world at the moment: that the people who are leading companies and politicians think in a very short term, to the next shareholder meeting, to the next election. And many of the big problems facing us: the climate change, population growth, are much longer-term problems, and population growth in particular is a problem that politicians don't like because it involves religion, it involves sex, and also quite a lot of politicians have (a family) with a large number of children, and you cannot as a politician stand up and preach about family size when somebody in the audience starts shouting, "What about your five children?" or whatever.
So it is a subject which is better avoided if they can do so. And I think we have to change the parameters that economies are judged by, and this shouldn't be too difficult because when I was a student, the absolute key parameter was the balance of payments, which is the difference between the imports and exports of the country. Now this is never mentioned. - Rarely.
- Yes. So, it's quite possible that we can change the parameters on which success is judged. There is a country called Bhutan, where the metric for defining success is the degree of happiness. It's not the gross domestic product, it's the heart, not like what the other guys embrace.
Well, that's true, but let me just slightly counter. Well, first of all happiness is not necessarily something that's easily quantified. But the other thing is that when I was just starting my academic career, my wife and I went to a lecture by somebody who had grown up during the height of Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union, and he said, "It was quite wrong to think that we felt miserable all the time." I didn't ask him this, but if he does rate his happiness in those circumstances, it would be clearly greater than zero, but I don't think that there are many people who would rate the time of the Stalin era as a happy time.
But I mean, it shows that different metrics are possible, and the other thing which has happened in the chemical industry is that there are many products, the ones that are produced on a very large scale, that are known as "commodity chemicals," where the price is determined by the market rather than by the producers, and it oscillates. And this means that shareholders get worried when the price of ammonia falls and they see their dividends going down. So, many of the largest chemical producers of commodity chemicals have become private companies because the private owners can… - Make decisions. - They can take longer term decisions.
If you like taking something that we teach in our sustainable chemistry classes, one has to take what the engineers call the systems view of the whole situation and not just focus on the chemistry but how it impacts and so on. We cannot decarbonize chemical production, in the sense that we need to make chemicals containing carbon. But we can decarbonize the energy production for that process. And I haven't had time to read it, but there was an article that arrived at my house yesterday by post about decarbonizing the production of steel by using electricity, using hydrogen… - Concrete. - Yes. Well, concrete… - It has a lot of carbon. - Yes. But that's more difficult, but there's carbon in the concrete as well.
But the other thing is that we can capture CO2 that is emitted from one industry and use it in some way in different industries. Quite a large part of my research has involved using highly compressed CO2 as a solvent for making chemicals, and that is replacing solvents that would come from the… It's a byproduct of the petrochemical industry. And one of the problems that is going to face us is that at the moment when oil comes out of the ground, some percentage and it's argued whether 90 or 95 percent goes into fuel and the other five or ten percent goes into chemicals. And the profits from the chemicals are equal to the profits from the fuels.
So, in fact, there is this balance, and we may be able to make some fuels from biomass, but the problem with that is that the biomass has grown the land, which might be used for fuel or for wildlife or whatever, though I did read in fact yesterday, when I knew this interview was happening, that there is the leading university, Universitas Indonesia, which has been empowering its campus on biogas, which is taking food waste biomass to ferment and produce methane, which can then be used for powering and as an energy source. And you could argue that that is, in principle, called the neutral (effect) because the CO2 for the biomass in the first place came from the atmosphere. The problem with biogas is that plants also contain sulfur, and the sulfur can produce unpleasant gasses as well. But here in Nottingham, there are some buses that are powered by biogas.
- Yeah. I’ve seen quite a bunch of those in a number of other places. - There is also the same university that has built in electric buses, and buses are really good for electrification because they go on fixed routes which are usually not very long and have a timetable, so you can timetable that they will be charged when they get to the other end and so on, whereas with people's cars, you don't know when they're going to turn up into charge, and they don't go on fixed routes. And again, on the sun-electric buses in Nottingham, there's an electric fan system, which you may have seen from the station on the tram. I've got to raise this point: you were awarded the title with the tram.
- Yeah. Well, I wasn’t entitled… - I’ve seen a quote where you would have preferred that over getting a Nobel Prize. - Well, I mean… - Because no scientists would have been given. - Yes, you can see there's a picture over there of the tram. - Oh, tram 2020? - Yes. I actually saw it this way. I saw it this morning as I was coming in.
I've never been on it myself yet but the tram… - Did you have to pay to get on it, if it's named after you? - Well, I'm just like any other passenger. In fact, there's quite a nice story that somebody else who was an actor and had a tram named after her who was told, "Oh, you can have a ride on it now," and after a few stops, an inspector got on and said, "Where's your ticket?" And she was chucked off the tram. But as an old person I can travel on the tram free after 9:30 in the morning.
- No kidding? Wow. - Yes, and until 11 o'clock at night. - Is it academically driven or age driven? - Well, age. And so, after 9:30, there are lots of old people on the tram. Well, there are a number of things about the tram. It is really good, and trams can use what is called regenerative braking and that as it slows down, it can put electricity back into the power supply. The difficulty is that when you're building it, you have to move all the drains and everything else from under the track because otherwise, every time there was a problem with the drains or the water supply, you would have to stop the tram service.
I mean, the tram line is not terribly long; it's only a few miles long, and it took several years to build. I want to go back to the sustainability equation. There's a lot of sunlight that is arguably equivalent to about 8,000 times the amount that we can consume.
So, it's just a matter of getting to that point where technology can actually help in absorbing, storing, and distributing in a very efficient manner, in a very environmentally friendly manner, and chemistry will help that, physics will help that, and I think common sense will help because there are many other countries that have tremendous hydro capabilities, but the supply is on the wrong side of the country and the demand is on the other side. Piping it from one end to the other is just prohibitively costly. So, have you read the book Gulliver's Travels? The old Gulliver’s Travel? Yeah.
Well, the bit that people don't normally read: Gulliver visits a scientific institute where they are studying cucumbers and trying to distill the essence of sunlight out of cucumbers to use it in the winter, so it's not a new program. But I think you're absolutely right about sunlight. I mean, the thing that I found rather irritating is that there are now some farmers in the UK who are putting solar panels on their fields so they can't grow crops or whatever, where we should be putting solar panels on buildings. And I have solar panels on our house, and that generates more than half the electricity we need.
There is the problem of storage, and one needs to think about that, but there are colleagues here on the campus who are studying the idea of taking batteries from electric cars because once the battery on the electric car is a bit less efficient, people want to change it because their car goes 80 miles rather than 100 miles. But the batteries are still okay, and if it's next to your house, you're not so worried about the efficiency; you can just have an extra battery because weight doesn't matter, so this might be quite a useful end-of-life application. A huge amount of the energy here in the UK is used for heating water.
For example, the environmental effects of laundry washing are not making the powder but heating the water, and it's quite easy in countries with a lot of sunlight to heat water using solar energy, and hot water is something you can't store overnight. And so, I think there are opportunities for doing this. What is needed is somehow to have the financial incentive to make people do this. So one needs to think quite carefully about how we're going to do it. But now that we have the tram here.
During the end of the pandemic, I always come to work on the tram because the tram is very quick, I don't have to worry about parking, and I can sit and read on the tram or whatever. And so, if you provide good public transport, that is the prerequisite to getting people to use less carbon, and therefore, in economically developing countries where cities expanding very quickly, one needs to think about transport infrastructure and perhaps designing those cities so cars are not needed so much. What do you think of this technological innovation where you can actually suck the carbon out of the atmosphere? The answer to that is that, in principle, it's possible but it is quite difficult because the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is quite low, so you need to pump a huge amount of air, which is expensive in energy. You know the Eiffel Tower. If you, in your mind, drew a box around the actual town that would contain the Eiffel Tower, the weight of the air in that box would weigh more than the Eiffel Tower, so it's very heavy. And the other problem is that the air contains a lot of water and quite a few other molecules of pollutants, and whatever absorbs the CO2 has got to be resistant to that water and mustn't clog up with these other things.
But conceptually… - Possible. - It is possible, but it's like… Well, if releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and then getting it out is not nearly as sensible as trying to stop the CO2 going into the atmosphere in the first place. And so, because in the end, carbon dioxide is going to be the only sustainable source of carbon with neutral chemicals, either by letting plants grow and then harvesting the chemicals or the biomass or converting the CO2 directly. The problem with making chemicals from CO2 is that the bonds between the carbon and the oxygen are very strong, so you need to put a lot of energy into the CO2 to break those bonds, so it is not very energy efficient making chemicals. But if that energy came safely from solar panels or whatever, or wind power, that would be good. But people are very keen on wind turbines and solar, but suddenly people are beginning to think, "What are we going to do with the old wind turbines?" Because they're very big plastic structures.
I don't know if you've seen how big a blade a little turbine is. People are complaining about birds getting hit by those. But I suspect that there may be some way of scaring birds off from them. I'm not quite sure how, but possibly giving out some ultrasonic signal or whatever or putting colored panels or something with flash.
But what to do with these things is how you recycle them. The other thing is that the magnets in the generator use the element neodymium, and there are not unlimited reserves of neodymium, the native members needed for the magnets in the generator. So, there is no simple solution to these things. You know, there are base metals, precious metals, noble metals, and rare earths within that hierarchy. How do you see the application of each stratum being able to help humanity in a good way going forward? Yes. I mean, the names are slightly misleading because the base metals aren't always in...
there are a lot of supplies like you think. I mean, the tin or copper reserves are not unlimited. Whereas the rare earth elements are not as rare as their names suggest, and the difficulties are not so much finding but separating them and the fact that there wasn't until recently a market for them. So it is only in a few places, particularly China, that they are being exploited, and there are reserves in America and, I think, other places that could be exploited, but they're not really up and running to the levels required when people suddenly realize how valuable these elements could be.
And the real point with all of these materials is that we need to use less of them to get the same effect. My colleagues and I came up with an idea called Moore's Law for Chemistry; you may be familiar with Moore's Law for computers, where it says that the cost of transistors and the number of transistors you can put on the chip, the cost goes down by about half every 18 months and the number you can put on the chip doubles. And so, we have come up with an idea of which we call Moore's Law for Chemistry, in which the amount of chemicals... it's based on the idea that people use or most people use chemicals for their effect rather than their amount.
So you shampoo your hair because you want your hair clean, not because the shampoo contains a particular amount of chemical, or you take a pill because you have a headache, not because it contains 400 milligrams of ibuprofen. So what we have suggested is Moore's Law of Chemistry, that over a period of five years, we should try and halve the amount of chemicals needed to produce a certain effect. And one should repeat this cycle so that you reduced. Now, it doesn't mean that you should take half a pill for your headache or a quarter of a pill after that. But what it means is the amount of solvents and everything else used to make that pill should be halved. And the other concept which has been introduced by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization is what is called "Chemical Leasing".
Now, I think the name is very bad, but the concept is really good. The idea is that at the moment, if you take a situation like a farmer who wants to put pesticides on the field to kill pests and insects, the farmer wants to spend as little money as possible buying it, but the manufacturer wants to sell as much as possible. So their aims are in the opposite direction. And the idea of chemical leasing is that instead of selling pesticides, the chemical company should be selling a healthy field and then working out the best way that they could, applying the pesticide, so it goes on to the plants and not all over the soil as well.
And the farmer will be happy because the farmer will get the healthy field that's wanted. And so it's in the interest of the supplier to minimize the production of chemicals without affecting their profits or, in fact, increasing their profits. And this has already been used successfully by the company, I've forgotten its name for the moment, that sells mining explosives, where they've stopped selling explosives and they now sell holes in the ground because the mine knows we want the hole of this size there. And so, the mining company tries to minimize the amount of explosives needed to make that hole, and I think this is a very powerful concept.
Draw the picture for us for 2045. It sounds like there is optimism here about the future. I usually ask the last question about what he or she thinks about where Indonesia or the world is going to head to in 2045. Well, the answer is that nobody knows because you cannot predict the future, but what I would say is that there are two possible points of view. There's the point of view that we're doomed and there is nothing we can do; we should just feel miserable till the end, or to have a feeling of optimism that we can solve the problem.
However, Paul Anastas, who was one of the founders of green chemistry, has a slogan he likes to say, well, two slogans, but one is that "The Stone Age didn't end through a lack of stones," and the other, which is more important now, is that "If we don't change what we're doing, we'll end up where we're heading." And so, there is a huge need for change. And it is difficult for people like me in economically very prosperous countries, though you might not think so looking at the UK economy at the moment, but it is compared to most countries, to preach that things need to change.
But what is really important is for the people who are developing the economies in those countries to realize that the future doesn't have to be like America, Europe, or whatever and that there's a much better way of doing things, and if you do those things, you will be in a much stronger position than the European countries in the future. That was actually the second last question. I got to ask you about the hair. I feel like I'm sitting next to Einstein or Jimi Hendrix. Well, my hair hasn't been gray all the time, but it has been like this since I was very young.
My Russian grandmother used to make a fuss and say, "You should oil it down." And once I left school, I was not restricted by my parents or grandparents. When I was a student, I think in 1967 or early ‘67, I went to the barber and had my hair cut, and my girlfriend, who's now my wife, said she thought it was terrible and that she could do better, and so she has cut it ever since. And so, I haven't been to a barber since 1967. And you're right, only that people shout "Hello, Einstein!" to me in all sorts of places.
Perhaps slightly less now than they used to. I take this as being that few people know about Einstein than they used to, and when I was younger and my hair was dark, people used to shout, "Jimi Hendrix". But that was fairly short-lived because, after his death, his star faded.
Quite a lot of people think that my hair is not genuine, and I've had schoolchildren ask if they can pull my hair to see if it's genuine. But one of my former students said to me that he thought I had two big advantages as a scientist: I have a funny name and funny hair. Whether that's true or not, well both are true, but whether they're an advantage I don't know. - Martyn thank you so much for your time. - It's okay. It's a pleasure talking to you. That was Professor Martyn Poliakoff at the University of Nottingham.