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Alan Bernstein
Alan Bernstein
President and CEO - Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)

Launching Canada’s Cleantech Moonshots

Published on

Takeaways

  1. Canada needs to take risks and put money into developing a cleantech moonshot plan, the same way the world rallied around developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
  2. The world has all the science it needs to be able to achieve a cleantech moonshot, especially in Canada, which boasts expertise in physics, chemistry, AI and engineering.
  3. The youth are both entrepreneurial and mindful of the world’s climate challenges. We must give them the resources they need to develop solutions for the future.

Action

Canada can rise up as a leader in these troubling times by achieving its own cleantech moonshot. The world can look to Canada as an example for climate action, but Canada must first be willing to invest in science and talent as well as in taking risks in order to propel us towards a cleaner and greener future.


Why does Canada need a cleantech moonshot?

We need to get there or we are in trouble. We can see the signs of that trouble already. Look at what is happening on the West Coast of North America over the last few summers from wildfires to heat domes. People are dying and their lives are being totally disrupted. The cost of climate change, even in Canada, is huge. The cost of a moonshot approach to cleantech is nothing compared to the destruction from climate change we are seeing in our own backyard.

When John F. Kennedy (JFK) launched the man on the moon expedition, there was no guarantee that it would work. Later, the United States (US) and Pfizer led global investments in RNA vaccines for COVID-19 and there was no guarantee that they would work either. None whatsoever. That was a long shot. 

I was privileged as a member of the vaccine task force to see some of the early data on animals. It looked very encouraging but that does not mean at all that it would work for humans. We had a lot of discussions. It works for mice, but it does not mean it is going to work for humans. This was absolutely true but we had to take those risks when there was so much at stake. There was a virus threatening the whole planet.

“We need to take the same attitude and money we put into the COVID vaccines and put that into our cleantech moonshot.”

We are in a similar situation with climate change and renewable energy. We need to take the same attitude and money we put into the COVID vaccines and put that into our cleantech moonshot. 

Luckily, we have all the ingredients we need both here in Canada but also internationally to do this. Where science is today is really remarkable. That is the most important thing. The level of sophistication and momentum in physics, chemistry, AI, engineering and all the things needed to create a true cleantech moonshot are here in Canada.

Secondly, young people who are in those areas of science are incredibly entrepreneurial and they are willing to take risks. They understand the stakes and they are excited by the hope that they can do something. They are optimistic that they can do something. If you do not have people, you do not have anything. 

The young talent is there and they are willing to do it. What we need now is the resources to let them loose and tackle this problem. Most of the solutions we come up with will not work, but the converse is that we continue with incremental science. Incremental science has a track record of working, but it is only incremental. It will make a bit of difference, but it is not the moonshot we need to really solve the climate change problem and get to net-zero by the target dates we have set for ourselves.


How can Canada improve our performance in cleantech? Which key stakeholders have to take action?

The keyword is “ecosystem”. We are talking about innovation and innovation always takes place in an ecosystem. If you study innovation ecosystems, they all have a number of characteristics that they share. Just to list them quickly, one is critical mass. You need to have a lot of startups, scaleups and ideally, anchor tenants such as large companies in that ecosystem, whether it is for high-tech, artificial intelligence, cleantech or biotech.

The second part of that ecosystem is a key component of what makes up an ecosystem. We need a critical mass of companies but also people and ideas. Without people and ideas, you do not have an innovation sector.

“The cleantech sector needs investors who understand the science and therefore can make knowledgeable investments.”

The third thing is venture capital. We need knowledgeable venture capital. The cleantech sector needs investors who understand the science and therefore can make knowledgeable investments. Otherwise, everything looks risky. Investors without knowledge are like blindfolded people in a dark room. They are not going to take a lot of big steps because they do not know what is out there. We need to be able to take some bold steps. That is one of the key things about cleantech because the clock is ticking.

The fourth thing is public funds. We need the public sector to be there in a couple of ways. One way is to train the talent needed and give rise to early-stage ideas coming out of universities. That is another common trait shared by all the high-tech ecosystems in innovation for every area including cleantech. Only the government or public funds can invest in extremely early-stage initiatives. It is too high a risk for the private sector, and the private sector does not invest in the earliest stage initiatives.

We also need the public sector to invest in infrastructure, which is another part of that ecosystem. Innovation takes place in buildings. If it is a biotech or cleantech ecosystem, they will need labs. If it is high tech, computers and computer space will be needed. 

We need all of that to gel together and beyond that, we need a broader environment that suggests a high quality of life. Smart people can live anywhere they want and obviously, they are going to choose to live where there is a high quality of life. The idea of a high quality of life is different for different people but for most people, they want a safe, interesting city and dynamic city that is walkable and has good restaurants and especially schools for their children.


Which technologies hold the most promise for a cleantech moonshot in Canada?

I will identify some of the outstanding questions that could be framed very differently in terms of a moonshot challenge. The first one is carbon capture and storage. When I think of carbon capture and storage in terms of our cleantech moonshot, I am not thinking about carbon capture and storage for the oilsands. The oilsands actually represent a very small percentage of carbon and methane released into the atmosphere. We need carbon capture and storage to capture all of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere on the planet as a whole.

The second area is solar energy, which is probably going to be the solution to electrifying the planet. That is not to say there are no problems with it, which I will come to. Canadians should remember that there are more than a billion people on the planet who do not have access to reliable, safe electricity, and there are huge implications, especially for women and children. 

Solar energy is the amount of sunshine that shines on the surface of the planet. There is an enormous amount of it and it is certainly enough to power all of our electrical needs, except the sun does not always shine. It is nighttime half the time at least in most places on average, and there are cloudy days. 

We need a way of developing batteries that can safely store the energy from the sun in a safe and accessible way, especially for specific cases such as people who live in villages around the world, such as in Africa. The batteries will not be for the grid as there are no grids in most of Africa, but they will be for individuals. 

Think about the Sahara Desert. The sun almost always shines there, at least during the daytime. If we can harvest that solar energy and transport it via the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, we could electrify Europe. We will lose a lot of energy in the process because it is a long distance. There is a lot of hydroelectric power in Northern Quebec. If we could electrify all of Canada or all of North America without any loss of electricity, that would be remarkable. The problem is we lose a lot of energy as we transmit electrons over large distances. 

So we need what is called superconductivity. We need a way of transporting electrons through large distances and materials without significant loss of energy.

We have a program called Quantum Materials (QM) and there are some individuals involved such as Pablo Jarillo-Herrero from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who have done amazing research on using twisted graphene crystals to get very close to superconductivity in the lab. These challenges raise a lot of interesting possibilities and questions around scaling up, whether there are better materials and potentially getting superconductivity in the real world. It is too early to say but that is the kind of science the world needs if we are going to solve these issues. 

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What concerns or excites you about Canadian science and innovation for the future economy? Do you have any words of wisdom to share? 

Canada has an opportunity to take a larger role on the world stage. We are going through a troubled time in the world with the war in Russia and Ukraine, for one thing, and the rise of populism not just in the United States but also unfortunately in our country and in other countries. This is not a good time and we need a calm voice of vision to lead us on where the world needs to go and how can we help get it there. It is not just about science. I am not that much of a science geek that I think all problems could be solved with science, but we certainly need leadership. 

“People trust Canadians. The world trusts Canada.“

People trust Canadians. The world trusts Canada. We are not big like the United States, which by virtue of its size is a leader. We are tiny. We are a small country and yet we have a pretty admirable track record internationally. Let us build on that and keep doing our best.

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Alan Bernstein
Alan Bernstein
President and CEO - Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)

Bio: Alan Bernstein is the President and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). He served as the Head of the Division of Molecular and Developmental Biology as well as the Director of Research at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was also the President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Executive Director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise

Organization Profile: The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is a Canadian-based global research organization that brings together teams of top researchers from around the world to address important and complex questions, working to identify major new areas of scholarship where Canada has the potential to lead. It is supported by individuals, foundations and corporations as well as the Government of Canada and the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.