Prof. Alex T. Bell, the Dow Professor of Sustainable Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley in he US, has an impressive CV, including being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and National Academy of Sciences in USA, as well as the International Academy of Sciences. He is recognized worldwide for his research in the fields of catalysis, chemical engineering, and energy. Prof. Bell has been long engaged in studies of the highly efficient transformation of fossil fuels to energy and the development and utilization of renewable energy. Prof. Bell has long-term collaborations with many academic and industrial entities in China. He serves on the academic committees for several key laboratories in China, including Dalian National Laboratory for Clean Energy (DNL), and is also the co-editor for the Journal of Energy Chemistry.
During his recent visit to DICP as the CAS Einstein Professorship Lecturer, Prof. Bell kindly took some time to sit down with us and answer some questions about his experience in China, thoughts about DICP, and how to have long-term success as a scientist.
Q：You had visited Dalian many times. What things are most impressive to you about Dalian?
A：Well, the most impressive things are the changes that have occurred both in the city and the institute. The city was much simpler, no big buildings, no modern feel 32 years ago. Likewise, the institute was only beginning to develop good techniques and methods. Over the past many years, it has become a world class institute. In other words, it(DICP) is as good as you will find anywhere -- like Europe and USA.
Q: You went to Xi’an and Beijing before Dalian. In your opinion, what are the differences between those cities and Dalian? And what is the biggest change you have seen in Dalian?
A: The biggest difference is in Dalian you can see more green, you can see hills, the air is cleaner, and you are near the sea, which always have been attractive features of Dalian. Well, the biggest change is the modernization, many more cars, more traffic now than ever before, also more people speak English and are easy to speak with.
Q: Which part of Chinese culture do you like best, for example the traditional culture, the food, the history, or something else?
A: I have always been interested in history. Wherever I travel, I like to learn about history, and I appreciate that particularly this trip -- going to the national museum in Beijing and also to several museums in Shanxi and learning about the early imperial history. That has been something I enjoy doing. I also enjoy meeting with people, because the people make the country. I have found from the very first visit here that people are very open. Probably, I have to say that Chinese people I know are more similar to Americans than Koreans and the Japanese.
Q: As an old friend of DICP, you know some of the history of the institute. What do you think of the development of DICP over the years?
A: I think DICP has been fortunate to have very good leadership. I know first Prof. Bao from the time he was a student in Fudan University and all the way to present time when he was a director of DICP and now he has a different position. And I know Can Li another very good leader of DICP in catalysis, and professor Zhang who is a good leader. So I think the institute has been very fortunate to have strong people with good technical backgrounds and providing leadership.
Q: The development of economy is closely related to energy, but at the same time it can contaminate the environment. Catalysts seem to be important factors in the energy field. In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of this work?
A: I think for China it’s particularly important to learn how to use clean energy and produce least amount of pollution. So if you choose to use coal, how do you minimize the release of sulfur, metals, mercury -- all the things that present in coal. Using coal for energy produces the largest amount of CO2, and this has an impact on global warming. What to do about that? Well, for the short term, China will continue to use coal because it is a national resource. For the longer term, I would suggest moving towards natural gas. And even longer term, moving towards solar energy including wind.
Q: You have been focused on the field of catalysis for more than 40 years. Why did you pick this field of study? What was the most attractive thing for you to stay involved in this work through the years?
A: I picked up this field quite by accident, because I did not do my formal education in the area of catalysis. At that time, it was thought that electrical energy would be cheap. We could afford to use the electrical energy to promote chemical reactions. But as I got more into my career, I had fewer opportunities to get money, but there was money to work on catalysis. The only thing I know about catalysis was from translating an article for one of my former colleagues, who was a chemical engineering student, translating from Russian into English. This article was about catalysis and use of it. So, that is how I started in catatlysis -- by accident. I stayed in the field because I discovered that it covered virtually all aspects of chemistry -- synthetic chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, certainly physical chemistry. So, I have found an endless number of interesting problems to work on.
Q: Throughout your career, what is the biggest challenge you have met and how did you overcome it?
A: The biggest challenge is to learn new things. I have to teach myself everything I know about catalysis. But as a result of doing that, I discovered that I can teach myself other new things. Every five or six years, I take maybe 20% of my program, and I move into new area rather than staying in something that I know about and am comfortable with. So this is how I got into theory 20 years ago. About 8 years ago, I became interested in biomass. Five years ago, I became interested in electrochemistry. I had not worked in any of these areas before, but the experience I have had showed that if you are well educated and you are serious about wanting to learn something new, you can lead yourself into a new area. I have been fortunate to do that with the help of good students and good postdocs. When I travel, I have been asked similar questions in the US, and I tell graduate students that you are actually smarter than you think, and you do not have to just do what you are educated to do. You can go into new areas if you apply yourself.
Q: As an outstanding scientist in catalysis and energy, what do you think about the work at DICP in this field?
A: I have been very impressed by the increasing improvement of research that is done here in Dalian. Also Tsinghua University and Xiamen, Beijing…these are the leading centers for catalysis. And I have seen better and better equipment. But even more important, are better and better ideas about what research to do. So at this point, certainly the DICP catalysis groups are good competitors.
Q: As you know, DICP has international cooperations with many other countries. Do you have any plan to collaborate with reserachers at DICP?
A: Yes, I certainly would like to. I will speak with Prof. Bao about how to do this. And the main thing is to find one or two themes which we can cooperate on. I think the area of solar energy conversion is one of the interests of both of us. We could establish some areas of cooperation between us and DICP. Also possibly with the Energy Bioscience Institute on biomass conversion.
Q: What kind of benefit do you feel you could get through such a cooperation? What can we learn from each other?
A: The way we would learn from each other is by the transfer of people. We can transfer students from here and Berkeley. And, you learn by working closely with different people. So, I have had many researchers come both from Dalian and from other parts of China to work with me as postdocs, and then they leave and start their own career.
Q: In this kind of cooperative relationship, what do you think is the most important factor to make sure the project goes well?
A: The most important factor is that the people involved have a common language and speak well. So in my case, knowledge of English is important. If people come to work with me who don’t speak English well or don’t want to learn to speak English well it makes it very hard to communicate. Communication is central to do good science.
Q: To the younger generation of scientists, especially the graduate students, what kind of advice would you give to them?
A: I think it’s very important to know the fundamentals of your field, know the modern techniques as well. And even more important is to ask critical questions. So ask questions beyond what is obvious. New areas of research develop when you look at things not as that people have looked at before but look at them in an unusual way, bringing new techniques and new perspectives. This is why I would like to go into new areas.
Q: You must be very busy with your work, how do you balance your work and family life?
A: This is always a challenge. My work is also my hobby, because I enjoy doing science. And my wife is constantly asking me to spend more time. This trip has been very nice, because we can be together for almost a month travelling. My wife is a very nice person who is also a scientist working on catalysis. She gives me a lot of support.
Q: On this trip, you came to DICP as an Einstein Professorship Program Lecturer. Do you have any suggestion about this program and what improvements can be made to this program?
A: I think it’s an excellent program. I was unaware of it until I was introduced to it by Prof. Bao. It’s a great opportunity for someone to come to China and see several cities and different institutes, meet new people, share their own work, and make new friends. I think the program right now as I have experienced is optimal. I wouldn’t improve or ask for any improvement. Maybe if a person has more time to spend, it’s less stressful, because I have been moving every four days. But all along this way, people have been very kind and very open, we have felt very comfortable. If there is another chance, I would be glad to join again.
The Einstein Professorship Program is a key initiative of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Prof. Alex Bell, who is one of participants of this program, has had a great influence in DICP. During his recent visit, we had a pleasant conversation with Prof.Bell, a very smart, humorous, and accomplished scholar. As a world-renowned scientist in catalysis field, Prof. Bell spoke highly of the achievements that DICP has obtained over the years.
Here, we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Prof. Bell and every participant of Einstein Professorship Program, who make such important and unique contributions to the development of scientific research and talent training in China.