‘My cover shows the painting, ‘A Woman peeling Apples’, by Pieter de Hooch, which is similar in style to the work of De Hooch’s famous contemporary and fellow Delft resident, Johannes Vermeer.

During my PhD project I worked on producing organic acids with genetically modified yeast. I mainly focused on malic acid, which was first isolated from apples. This painting therefore, which is connected to Delft and shows a scene with apples, seemed the right choice for my thesis cover,” says Rintze Zelle over the phone from Lexington, Kentucky.

“Malic acid is mainly used to conserve food and drinks, and to give them a sour taste. Traditionally this acid has been produced from fossil oil, but with increasing oil prices it has become interesting to switch to a biotechnological process. These organic acids can also be used for the production of bioplastics. In this way we can reduce our dependence on fossil oil.” After being born, raised and educated in Delft, Zelle now works as a metabolic engineer for Allylix, a small biotech firm.

Rintze M. Zelle, ‘Metabolic engineering of Saccharomyces cerevisiae for C4-dicarboxylic acid production’, 21 March 2011, PhD supervisors Professor Jack Pronk and Dr Ton van Maris.

The report, compiled by geologist Peter van der Gaag, states that the former gas fields under Barendrecht are ‘technical-geologically’ unsuited for CO2 storage. The report had been ordered by the Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs, but was never published. The television programme exposing this affair has stirred up new discussions about the safety of CO2 storage in Barendrecht.

“It’s nonsense”, counters dr Karl Heinz Wolf (Civil Engineering and
Geosciences), who actually lives near Barendrecht and has been working on gas flows through geological materials for more than twelve years. He knows Van der Gaag as a geologist who likes to be of service to environmental groups, although Wolf has not in fact read the government report under discussion. The television programme, which he did see, was biased, says Wolf, and it only featured opponents of the CO2 storage programme. Wolf has no doubts about the geological aptness of the soil and rock. “Two kilometres of stone on top of a gas tight layer that previously held methane at an even higher pressure.” He also thinks the toxicity of CO2 is exaggerated. He compares eventual CO2 leaks to the constant emissions of CO2 at chemical factories: “I’ve never seen anyone drop dead there.” Frankly stated, Wolf is fed up with discussions about the safety of CO2 storage: “The research has been done, the answers have been given. But still, every time someone pops up with the same questions.”

“Without more detailed information, it’s unclear to me whether or not it’s a scandal that the government held back this report”, says PhD student, Nicole Huijts, who specialised in public acceptance of new technologies at the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. “But I’d expect the researchers from the University of Utrecht to be objective in this matter, and they judged that this report would receive a grade of 3 if it had been written by a student. But still, for more transparency, they could make the report public.”
The debacle shows how sensitive the issue of carbon storage is with the public. Has the government been honest in its communication towards the public? Huijts believes so. “But it would’ve been better if the government had started a public debate about this much earlier”, she adds. “Ten years ago this topic had already appeared in policy documents. A lot of technical and legal issues, as well as the best spots to store the carbon, must still be determined, but nevertheless the government should have started debates. That way people would’ve had more time to get used to the idea.”

“Public acceptance is a real issue”, says professor Hans Bruining, “but not all engineers are well equipped to deal with it.” But are we even barking up the right tree? The problem with CO2 capture and storage lies in the capture, which is much too expensive with current technologies. “We should first bring down the costs of capture before venturing into storage projects”, he says. (JW/TvD)

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