By Federico H. Cova, PhD Candidate at Balseiro Institute, Argentina
When working in the field of alternative energy sources it is usual to think only in the part of the process in which the research is centered. From this view, you can always say that what you do is good, after all, how can hydrogen be a worse alternative than fossil fuels? It’s hydrogen! Water is the only product of the reaction in a fuel cell. Which energy source can be cleaner than solar power? The sun does all the work, we just need to collect what it gives to us and, anyway, the sun will continue to deliver its energy no matter what we do. I must admit that I belonged to that group of people; I believed that fuel cells and hydrogen were undoubtedly the best alternative for the energy future of the planet, that there was no disadvantage in this kind of energy.
And then I went to ACS summer school in green chemistry, and I was forced to open my eyes. Many times while working in science we tend to focus exclusively on the area of interest closest to our subject, losing the big picture. What is the purpose of reducing vehicle emissions if to achieve this we must increase industrial emissions in an even larger amount?
The experience of green chemistry summer school allowed me to stop and think about things that I did not think about before despite knowing them. Nobody believes that the materials used in their research appear magically in the supplier's warehouse, but perhaps many tend to dismiss the impact that the production process of these materials has on the environment.
How much does the manufacture of a solar panel increase the amount of greenhouse gases emitted? How significant is the impact of the manufacture of materials used for fuel cells?
I have never asked myself these kinds of questions before, but I’m sure I’ll do it the next time I have to choose a material to work. In short, summer school gave me a new perspective about my way of doing science. And with this new knowledge also gave me, and I hope to the rest of those who participated in it, the responsibility to study more carefully and evaluate in a more global way what we do in our research and the consequences it brings.
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