Get to know Gonzalo Prieto from CSIC

Hi, I’m Gonzalo. I am a chemical engineer by training. After 10 years research experience abroad, in fall 2018 I moved my research group from the Max Planck Society (Germany) to the Institute for Chemical Technology (ITQ) of the Spanish Research Council (CSIC), in Valencia, where I currently lead CSIC’s research group Catalysis engineering and small molecule valorization. I am also the father of Hugo (5) and Laia (7 month old), which is often a more demanding task than persuading molecules to behave as one wishes.

At E-TANDEM, I act as the project’s coordinator and my team is also responsible for technical activities within Work Packages 2 and 4, which develop lab-scale multifunctional catalysis solutions for e-fuel production.

What was your original motivation to become a researcher?

Towards the end of my chemical engineering MSc studies, catalysis was among the subjects that attracted me the most. Converting matter into the chemical compounds we need as a society was fascinating to me, much more than other well established unitary operations in chemical engineering, such as separations, stream conditioning, etc. I quickly realized that all the calculations which us, chemical engineers, perform to design a chemical reactor (and the process attached thereto) depend on the kinetics and selectivity of those chemical reactions taking place on the surface of catalysts, those “mysterious” materials which do not participate in the chemical reactions but affect their rate and steer them to specific products out of the several which are possible. This triggered my curiosity about the atomic-scale phenomena which empower these catalysts. Hence, I decided to combine my knowledge at the macroscopic level, as an engineer, with additional knowledge at the nanoscale and molecular levels, becoming a scientist. This way I considered I could not only understand better this type of materials, but additionally design new ones which extend the range of chemical transformations within reach for the chemical and energy industries.

What is your (main) research area today?

Research in my team revolves around the development of nanomaterials, namely catalysts, and new chemical production concepts therewith, for the valorization of oil-alternative resources into added-value commodity chemicals and renewable energy carriers (bio and e-fuels). These transformations typically entail the activation and conversion of small but also rather recalcitrant molecules, for instance C1 and N1 compounds, and our work focuses on designing materials with the right functionality. An important research sub-area in the team is “tandem catalysis” wherein we integrate different catalysts and reactions in a single conversion step, a concept which holds great potential for the intensification of chemical processes and the reduction in their carbon footprint.

What is the main objective of your team in E-TANDEM?

Some of my tasks as coordinator are to supervise that the project is implemented according to plan, identify with the consortium partners any risks as early as possible and the most suitable contingency measures, or to support the relations of our implementation team with the stakeholders which could take the results from E-TANDEM to the next level. On the technical side, my team contributes mostly to tasks related to the development of catalysts for the tandem conversion of e-syngas to oxygenated fuel components, or to the purification of recycled water streams. This is essential to provide an optimal integration of electro- and thermo-catalytic steps along the new e-fuel production concept we aim to showcase.

What expertise and facilities does your team have to meet those objectives?

Our research strongholds are materials synthesis, physicochemical diagnostics of said materials, and catalysis. Primarily thanks to the hard work of its former director Prof. Corma and a team of devoted researchers for over 30 years of existence, the institute currently hosts world-leading infrastructures for research in these areas. In E-TANDEM we contribute with facilities for the precision synthesis of nanomaterials, their diagnostics with a battery of methods, including operando spectroscopy and tomographic (3D) imaging at the nanoscale, and their testing under process conditions relevant for e-fuel production. Our team holds experience in areas such as syngas conversion, which is central to the production of synthetic fuels. Together with our project partner the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion (Germany), we were responsible for generating intellectual property on a new tandem syngas conversion process which served as the starting point for the new e-fuel production concept explored within E-TANDEM.

Which aspects of your research at E-TANDEM do you believe are the most innovative and what unique opportunities does E-TANDEM offer to you and/or your organisation?

The discipline of catalysis has traditionally been subdivided into two areas, “homogeneous catalysis” which employs molecular catalysts in solution, and “heterogeneous catalysis” which develops solid materials as catalysts. Traditionally, scientists have perceived these two realms as a dichotomy, with complementary benefits and drawbacks, but difficult to reconcile. Our work as part of E-TANDEM demonstrates that these two types of catalysts can cooperate in a single reactor to attain performances otherwise out of reach for a conventional two-step, two-reactor conversion process. I would mark this as the most innovative aspect of our research in E-TANDEM, a project which I expect to contribute to reinforcing the position of our institute as a front runner in innovation solutions for the energy transition.

How do you see the future use of the E-TANDEM results and the impact of the E-TANDEM project in our daily lives?

E-TANDEM operates at a rather low Technology Readiness Level, as it aims to solidify a proof of concept for a new e-fuel production route at laboratory scale. However, key players are also part of the implementation team and its stakeholders board, to create a credible roadmap for activities at higher TRL, beyond E-TANDEM. The project targets to showcase not only a new e-fuel production concept but a new e-fuel composition altogether, in response to barriers which stand between synthetic fuels and their extended market penetration. These undoubtedly are related to production costs, but also compatibility with existing fuel distribution and engine infrastructures or their compliance with fuel regulations which are in force. While the society sees electrification of car transport as an imminent change, it is less obvious to people that de-fossilizing for instance marine transport is as essential, if not more, to reduce our net CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. I expect the results from E-TANDEM to be an important drive in this direction.

Project progress

© 2023 E-TANDEM

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Commission. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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