Science Research at UvA-VU: SOLARDAM
The year started auspiciously for SOLARDAM: two years after its founding, the consortium received seed capital for eight postdocs. The initiators are anxious for them to start as soon as they can. 'We're all chemists, physicists or biologists; these are going to be real SOLARDAM people.'
Complementing areas of expertise
SOLARDAM is studying the conversion of solar energy into electricity and fuel. The first workshop was held at the end of 2012. Among the 30 participants were Tom Gregorkiewicz, professor of Optoelectronic Materials at the UvA Institute of Physics (IoP), and Joost Reek, professor of Homogeneous Catalysis and director of the UvA Van 't Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences (HIMS). Gregorkiewicz says that everyone there was already studying solar energy within their own discipline. 'But the subject matter is complex. So we thought, if you join forces, you get synergy, which increases your overall understanding.'
Reek continues, 'Individually, the different institutes possess tremendous expertise, but each one has its limitations'. He cites an example from his own research, in which his team is investigating the possibility of converting water into fuel. According to Reek, 'Producing molecular components is what we excel at. But we also need devices to convert them. We read about those in the literature and then we experiment. It's fun, but there are physicists at AMOLF who are real experts at designing devices. And then at VU University Amsterdam there are physicists specialised in spectroscopic measurements of light capture and charge separation. Their data is extremely useful for us. Therefore, our areas of expertise complement each other really well'.
One of Gregorkiewicz's activities involves modifying the colours of the light spectrum. At the 2012 kick-off meeting, he discovered that biologists are also interested in this topic. 'In many cases, bacteria only use one or two colours in their conversions, so if you want to use them, you lose a lot of energy.' As a physicist, he knows how to minimise the loss, for example by only providing them the light that they actually use. By giving the bacteria different light pigments, they can also sometimes use a wider part of the spectrum.
Working together at Amsterdam Science Park
According to the two researchers, consortiums are working on new forms of solar energy in various parts of the world, so they are all the more delighted to be expanding the existing Amsterdam partnerships with the postdoc programmes to form a coherent programme. They also want to provide interdisciplinary training to students. If it were up to them, all SOLARDAM members would soon come together in one Science Park office, although a few will probably work from VU University Amsterdam. However, the location issue will likely resolve itself in due course: in the near future, both ECN's photovoltaic research and a large part of VU physics will move to Science Park. But they are already cooperating effectively now. Gregorkiewicz: 'The energy is fantastic.'