New collaborative I-CORE centers include a project focused on finding a channel for synthesizing fuel from materials like wood chips and algae.
By Rivka Borochov
Prof. Ronnie Kozlov thinks that ethanol would be better as a beer than as a grain-based fuel supplement served from a gas pump. That’s why he is looking forward to results from a new Israeli government initiative, a research startup fund called I-CORE — an acronym for Israeli Centers for Research Excellence.
One of the first I-CORE facilities, opened in August, is dedicated to renewable energy research. This is one of four pilot projects that channel a chunk of research dollars — $17 million — to encourage sound, collaborative science.
Kozlov heads the Department of Exact Sciences and Technology at the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), the organization that is designating the funds awarded by the Israel Council of Higher Education. He works on the theoretical aspects of physics and chemistry involved in solar energy harnessing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Renewable energy research aims to find a new channel for synthesizing biofuels, Kozlov says. The old method, still used because it is industrially viable, takes feedstock such as corn and converts its sugars into ethanol. Some pumps in the United States already offer an ethanol mix, but it’s not a long-term solution because traditional biofuel production competes with food and leads to higher food prices.
Scientists know there is exciting promise in alternatives –– from bio-waste like wood chips, or even algae. The question is how to make these alternatives efficient and competitively priced.
Israel encourages collaboration
The new I-CORE project will connect 27 researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Research, Ben Gurion University and the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Under the leadership of Prof. Gidon Grader at the Technion, the researchers will examine the hard science involved in photo-catalysis of carbon dioxide and water into fuels, the gasification of biomass and the production of liquid fuels from biomass.
At Ben-Gurion University, the research is led by Prof. Moti Herskowitz (cutting-edge alternative fuels) and Prof. Sammy Boussiba (algae biotechnology), along with the young researcher Dr. Taleb Mokari, recipient of a European Union grant of 1.5 million euros for his work on photovoltaic nanomaterials.
Prof. Benny Geiger, chair of the academic board of the ISF and a researcher at the Weizmann, says I-CORE creates a financed infrastructure for cross-university research cooperation.
“Israel has a collaborative atmosphere; it encourages collaboration. The question is how to get the financing. If you want collaboration, you need a program.”
While no one group is getting a tremendous amount of research money, the vision is to get scientists thinking of long-term industrially viable solutions, rather than overnight breakthroughs.
Reversing the brain drain
Another important goal of I-CORE is “to bring back home brilliant Israeli researchers who want to do research in Israel … and supplying them with the ability to establish their own lab as tenure-track principle investigators,” Geiger says.
“Here we have an urgent need because there are many brilliant Israelis working as post-doc fellows at absolutely the best universities, and they get a lot of offers. Their consideration of their own future depends to a large extent on what is being offered financially and the working environment. I-CORE is giving nice support for five years. It attempts to help make the return home easier, so it’s not a compromise.”
Kozlov says that 70 percent of the I-CORE budget goes toward financing new faculty members in diverse areas of science.
“We spread ourselves in many fields,” says Kozlov. “As for other renewables, there will be more centers [in different programs] funded by the government. There was a government decision on R&D on renewable energy with an emphasis on transportation, the most crucial niche for Israel,” he says. New programs will be announced soon.