Bernardo del Campo is PhD candidate at Iowa State University in the United States. The 30-year-old scientist from Uruguay specialises in Mechanical Engineering and Biofuels. His research focuses on ways to make biofuel production even greener. He is one of the winners of the 2012 Green Talents Competition for outstanding international scientists to establish networks with distinguished German institutions in the field of sustainability research and to intensify global exchange between young researchers.
You are a mechanical engineer and were chosen as one of the 25 winners of the Green Talents Competition. Why did you decide to apply for it?
I’m always looking for opportunities to broaden my perspective on sustainability and bioenergy. This area is moving very rapidly, with new technologies, innovations and opportunities being developed every day, all around the world. The Green Talents Competition gave me the opportunity to catch up on what is happening in other countries, and especially in Germany which has always taken the lead in developing novel, clean and efficient technologies. My aim was to delineate my investigation with a different approach or even incorporate some new ideas into my own research. For example when putting together two very basic pillars of tomorrow’s energy platforms, such as bio-renewables and environmental aspects, Germany is an excellent opportunity to enrich my education in both topics, and I can certainly take further advantage of by expanding my professional network.
Your current research focuses on environmental technologies and on the way to make biofuel production even greener. What are the main topics of your investigation?
I am currently working towards my PhD in Mechanical Engineering with a co-major in biorenewable resources and technologies. The major goal that my colleagues and I are trying to pursue is the production of biofuels from crop residues and waste materials. In a process called pyrolysis, we create a petroleum-like material (bio-oil), flammable gases and a solid residue called biochar. My current research focuses on biochar, which retains most of the nutrients from the original biomass as well as a considerable amount of carbon. In this fashion, we harvest the energy from the biomass and transform it into fuels and chemicals, while retaining nutrients and carbon in a recalcitrant form in the biochar. This charcoal-like material has proven to have enormous potentials for sequestering carbon dioxide while returning those nutrients back to the soil where they were harvested, closing the loop in a much more sustainable and elegant fashion.
You are conducting your research in the USA. Which differences do you notice compared to environmental and sustainability research in Germany?
In the biofuels arena, the US is investing millions of dollars to replace fossil-based fuels. But what stood out to me was that Germany relies on renewables so strongly that a conscious management of environmental resources plays a key role in moving forward. The transformation of the energy system by displacing gasoline, diesel, fossil electricity etc. is such an ambitious goal that it can only be achieved by profoundly impacting the people, industry and politics towards a much greener consensus. I believe this approach will highlight Germany as a leading nation in renewable energy and certainly establish a benchmark for other countries to work in the same direction.
As a winner of the Green Talents Competition, you had the opportunity to visit important research institutions during a two-week tour across Germany and to gain insights into research on sustainability. What did you learn about environmental and sustainability research and the role that the notion of sustainability plays in Germany?
I was very impressed by several institutions exploring thermochemical conversion, for example the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and their innovative second-generation biofuels (bioliq) or the hydrothermal carbonisation approach of the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental Safety and Energy Consumption (UMSICHT) in Oberhausen. These are two very clear examples of how these technologies could be brought up to larger scale. From what I’ve seen, these are the closest approaches to commercialising biofuels from biomass.
The winners of the award are invited to return to Germany in the following year for a research stay of up to three months. Did you meet any organisations and researchers with whom you would like to collaborate in the future?
One of the main reasons for me to apply was the possibility to collaborate and potentially develop research projects with German researchers. Before coming to Germany, I already knew some of the work that Dr. Bruno Glaser, Professor at the Institute of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg was doing on the project “Terra Pretta do indio”. The same applied to Dr. Claudia Kammann, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Plant Ecology at the University of Giessen and her research on greenhouse gas emission in biochar-amended soils. However, spending two days talking with these scientists and visiting their experimental sites gave me a much better perspective of their work and enhanced my enthusiasm for the great job they are doing. I hope to make some arrangements to collaborate with Dr. Kammann on greenhouse gas measurement of biochar-amended soils or deepen my work on biochar surface chemistry with Dr. Glaser. Both are promising perspectives for the future.