Living and breathing energy research

June 8th 2020

At the end of his tenure as director, Richard van de Sanden looks back on how the DIFFER institute has grown over the past ten years and talks about his plans as future scientific director of the TU/e energy institute EIRES.

Richard van de Sanden decided to step down several months before the end of his term as a director of the DIFFER institute for fundamental energy research. With the Dutch climate agreement building up steam and real choices being made, it is an excellent time for the institute to reassess the contribution of fundamental energy research in the energy transition and of the role it wants to play as a national institute. As he prepares to hand over the baton to DIFFER's new director Marco de Baar, we sit down to look back on Richard's ten years at DIFFER.

One of the major events during your directorship was of course the move from Rijnhuizen to Eindhoven. The aim of this operation was to increase the interaction between the institute and the universities. Did that happen?

“Most certainly! In Rijnhuizen, there were about 150 people working at the institute. That number has risen to 200 to 250, while the number of people on the payroll hasn’t changed. We welcome many visiting researchers, PhD students, and postdocs both from Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences, and from abroad. That has led to a change in culture in the institute itself. Nowadays, we are much more in interaction with the outside world, and the societal relevance of our work is more apparent.”

Richard van de Sanden, director of DIFFER 2011-2020
Richard van de Sanden, director of DIFFER 2011-2020

How would you describe the soul of current-day DIFFER?

“We are all living and breathing energy research. First and foremost we are researchers who are interested in the fundamentals. But what makes DIFFER people different, is  that all of us are intrinsically motivated by the wish to contribute to solving the energy problem. That does not mean that we immediately cut off any interesting side paths though. Take Chromodynamics, our start-up company that started off as a hyper spectral imaging technique for Tokomaks, enabling the real time capturing of emission lines of the fusion plasma. That technique is now used to monitor biological tissues during heart surgery.”

What did you want to achieve when you started as a director?

“The aim was that DIFFER would eventually coordinate the fundamental energy research in The Netherlands. We made steps there, but there still is a lot of work left to be done. For research on fusion, taking up the coordinating role was easy, since we are the only Dutch party with access to international fusion facilities. But for other energy research topics, we are still looking for our natural role.”

What turned out to be the main challenges there?

For universities it is not always easy to deal with us, since we are doing research ourselves, and as such seen as competition in acquiring research funds. For now, we decided to take up a more facilitating role instead of a coordinating one. For example, we breathed new life into the Electrochemical Conversion & Materials community, which was a rather abandoned field and now is a flourishing theme again in our country. And when we found that there was no mention of energy research in the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA), we initiated what became the NWA-route Energy Transition together with NERA.”

Despite of these efforts, in 2019 academia weren’t even invited to help establish the Dutch Climate Agreement.

“As I have stated before, I think that was a missed opportunity. The fact that climate policy now is almost all about the built environment is something science would have protested against. To make an actual impact, you have to focus on industry and increasing the availability of sustainable energy. Also, the timelines are wrong. If we are able to produce sustainable, synthetic gas in only a couple of years, all the time and energy that went into transforming the energy infrastructure to make the Netherlands entirely free of gas will have been wasted.”

How can we get science at the table when it comes to these types of decisions?

“You need preparedness on both sides. Scientists are eager to participate. But there is a growing lack of trust in the value of science. Even policymakers in The Hague now tend to say ‘Is this the true story, or is this a lobby of some sort?’ The role of universities and research institutes like DIFFER is to look beyond 2030. We should focus on the things that are not that easy to decarbonize, like sustainable synthetic kerosene for large distance transport, or the use of plasma pyrolysis to directly produce hydrogen from methane without CO2 production.”

Where does fusion research fit into this focus on the transition to a carbon neutral society?

“Fusion is a long term endeavour aimed at providing baseload power. Since the world is urbanizing, there is an increasing need for energy concentrated at specific locations. Nuclear solutions like fusion and fission are serious options we should investigate. As far as DIFFER goes, I think we have chosen to work on the right topics, with materials, control and real time modelling. We have established an unique experiment with the PSI-facilities, and crown jewel Magnum-PSI, especially when the coupling with the ion beam will be made.”

And where does DIFFER’s research on solar fuels stand?

“That programme has run for five years now, and we see we are gradually making an impact. Our research on using plasmas for gas conversion is a clear area in which we lead the field. And also in the combination of plasmas with electrochemistry we have seen some nice results. But we are not at the top yet. I think this is typically something for a new director to develop a vision on: what road to take with this research.”

Looking back, what are you most proud of?

“In fusion research: the fact that we have overcome so many technical problems and managed to establish our world-class facility Magnum-PSI. For solar fuels: that we have been a worldwide trendsetter. And of course I am proud that so many of the original Rijnhuizen staff decided to move with us to Eindhoven; that we are working in a magnificent new building here; and that we have established a good interaction with the environment. We have laid a solid foundation. And fortunately, there still are enough challenging research questions left to be tackled, which I am really looking forward to diving into as a part-time group leader here.”

New director

In July, DIFFER's head of Fusion Energy research Marco de Baar will take over from Richard van de Sanden as the new institute director. Richard van de Sanden will stay in place to ensure a smooth transition. After stepping down, he will keep a strong connection to DIFFER as a scientific group leader on Plasma Solar Fuel Devices. He will also take up a new challenge as first scientific director of the newly formed Eindhoven institute for renewable energy systems (EIRES) at Eindhoven University of Technology.

“The EIRES staff, all located at the different departments of the TU/e, will work on technology capable of converting and storing sustainably produced energy”, explains Van de Sanden to TU/e's Cursor. “Thus the emphasis isn't going to be on the generation of energy from sun and wind, but rather on how we can accommodate the fluctuations in production, and how this energy can be used to help make synthetic fuels, chemicals and raw materials for the chemical industry, but also we will look at the development of thermal energy storage by means of a thermal battery.”