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This Young Climate Scientist Is Creating Energy Out of Thin Air

Meet the 28-year-old working to convert pollution into something useful.

by VICE Staff
Mar 4 2020, 9:47pm

The article is part of RE: Generation - a VICE and Toyota partnership highlighting the people and stories around Canada’s growing sustainable energy movement.

Created with Toyota Canada

At just 27, Phil De Luna is already changing the world. As program director at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), he’s bringing together some of the most brilliant research minds in the world to tackle our collective climate crisis. From AI-powered research labs, to artificial photosynthesis, their work is rapidly accelerating a more sustainable future.

We spoke with De Luna about the impact of the global climate movement, what’s keeping him hopeful, and his own ground-breaking research to create energy out of thin air.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: You're the youngest director in NRC history. I'm guessing that you were a science kid?Phil De Luna: I always wanted to be a scientist growing up. My favourite TV show was Magic School Bus. Do you remember those Scholastic book fairs? I’d always buy the science experiments.

What led you to focus on climate change?
My parents are Filipino, and they moved us to Windsor, Ontario for a better life. My Dad’s advice was to make sure that I was doing something that I liked, that I cared about, and that I found important. I started thinking about challenges I could tackle, and climate change, in my opinion, is the biggest challenge that humanity faces.

I did my undergrad in chemistry, and for my master's I worked on identifying new materials for capturing CO2 in our atmosphere. My PhD was on artificial photosynthesis, a system for converting carbon dioxide into something useful using renewable electricity—similar to how plants can take carbon dioxide from the air and use water to make sugar. The idea is to close the carbon loop and make pollution into something of value. Look at the plastic case on your phone. Instead of its carbon coming from a fossil fuel, imagine a world where it could come from the air.

This sounds incredible. How are you making it happen?
At the NRC, I manage a collaborative research program with a $57 million budget over seven years. We find the best minds in Canada, and the world, to work with us. For example, we're building AI robots that can discover new catalyst materials for hydrogen production. Another project is taking carbon dioxide and converting it into synthesis gas using sunlight to make a synthetic fuel. I'm trying to find ways to electrify the oil and gas industry, and build technologies that can sustainably transition this huge sector of Canada into a low carbon economy.

As a climate scientist, you must be inundated with dire predictions and data sets. How do you stay hopeful?
I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where the work that I'm doing directly impacts the problem. But to be honest, it weighs on you. It's difficult to look at the data, the headlines, and not feel a sense of dread.

No matter how grave things may seem, it gives me hope that there's an entire generation of people that’s making change happen and holding people accountable. I can talk about Greta Thurnberg, or I can talk about my own friend group. There's been a cultural shift towards more sustainable practices, and a focus on thinking about how we take a place in this world.

There's lots of articles about climate doomsday scenarios, but there isn't enough talk about solutions that people are working on. We’re making policy, designing technology, changing our communities, and looking at our personal responsibility. Climate change solutions are complicated, and can be hard to communicate. How do you explain a robot that’s making a material that can split water? First there’s the robot part. Then there's the AI part, then there's the splitting water, and why it actually matters. But these things are happening, and they’re very hopeful.

What advice would you offer the average, non-PhD holding person who wants to help, but isn’t capable of developing their own clean energy technology?
The decisions that you make in your life, and the way that you vote, are tremendously important. I’d recommend everyone look at their day-to-day life and follow the carbon trail. When you take a sip of coffee, remember that those beans had to come from somewhere. They had to be transported, and that uses fuel. I’m not advocating that we completely change our way of life. I’m talking about us collectively trying to find ways that reduce that impact, or change parts of that supply chain—either through technology or policy.

We do need to be careful not to personalize it too much. We can’t think that just because we stopped using plastic straws, that it’s making a big impact. These habits are important to change perception and culture. But what really needs to happen is a broad systematic change in the way that the energy and economic systems of the world operate. We're talking about incentivizing completely different things rather than just profit and revenue generation. There’s a danger of looking at the problem and saying, “I'm a vegetarian, I've done my part.” Because then we're trusting the system to change. And it won't, unless people demand it.

Imagine if we could transition an entire industry and economy into making clean energy. It’s a massive opportunity, and the world is already moving there. If Canada can position ourselves to be the first movers of that, then that's where economic growth can be. It has to happen. So why don't we lead it?

Tagged:
Science
environment
energy
climate
climate change
Clean Air