Luisa Lavagnini is Head of Research & Technological Innovation Eni. On his table land daily reports and achievements that could, in the space of a few years, revolutionize our lifestyles, really turning them to a pushed circularity. We talked with her about the complete recycling of plastic, about energy from waves, about how her work also consists in ensuring that the most visionary research reaches a point of fall, as soon as possible, in our daily life.
Chemical recycling and sustainability: does it help us to better understand what the former is and what it is used for in a system that must be increasingly sustainable?
Eni is committed to the development of technologies for the recycling of plastics and rubbers with a view to circular economy. In addition to and as a complement to mechanical recycling, chemical recycling also allows the recovery of mixed plastic waste, such as the so-called 'multilayer' packaging used for the preservation and hygiene of food, which today are sent to waste-to-energy and therefore lead with CO2 emissions. Hoop®, the circle, the symbol of circularity par excellence, is the name of the project for the development of a new sustainable chemical recycling technology to transform mixed plastics into new raw materials to produce new polymers identical to the original ones and suitable for any application. A virtuous process of theoretically infinite plastic recycling, with the aim of making plastic completely circular and with zero carbon footprint.
You are head of Eni's Research & Development: seven research centers in Italy, a thousand people working on joint projects, collaborations with seventy universities and research centers. How is the scouting of new ways of producing energy activated? How do you select the various projects so that time to market is as short as possible and research has a quick outlet in our consumption and lifestyles?
Our approach consists first of all in exploiting the knowledge and technologies developed in the context of our traditional activities to take new paths. Consider, for example, the knowledge we have of the subsoil, the offshore environment, chemical processes, the many advanced technologies with which we manage the activities, our ability to process massive amounts of data. Here, we use all of this to look beyond and design new paths that allow the increasingly extensive use of renewable sources and the progressive decarbonisation of our production processes. Then we enter into collaboration agreements with Italian universities and international research bodies to share skills in stimulating contexts of development and growth. Finally, we collaborate with university start-ups or spin-offs that, in an agile way, bring us new ideas to be exploited. We do a great team work and, where possible, we parallelize the activities. We want to reduce the time to value, that is the time that elapses between the moment we start working on a technology and when it brings value.
Renewable energy from waves, what developments are there on this front that is still little known but of great potential?
Waves are a renewable source of energy that is predictable and evenly distributed. ISWEC (Inertial Sea Wave Energy Converter), the so-called Cradle of Energy, conceived by the Polytechnic of Turin, was developed by exploiting the know-how accumulated in Eni's offshore activities, the agility of the research carried out by Wave for Energy ( a spin off of the PoliTo), the infrastructures of the MORE Lab of the Politecnico itself, the validation laboratory set up at the converted PC80 platform and the computing power of the Eni Green Data Center supercomputer. How does ISWEC work? A gyroscopic system kept in rotation inside a hull (the so-called 'cradle'), actively reacts to the wave motion to keep the system horizontal. In this way a dynamo is solicited which produces electrical energy which can be stored in batteries. In the Ravenna offshore we have installed the first hybrid system in the world, photovoltaic in the platform and batteries in the cradle and the application of the technology in Sardinia and in smaller islands is already planned. Thanks to the enormous computing capacity of our Green Data Center and to mathematical models that elaborate multiple design solutions, we can process weather-marine data from all coastal areas of the globe and combine them with those on the behavior of ISWEC and on the amount of energy that derives from it.
What is the project you are working on that could give more results in the short or medium term and which one is the most visionary and achievable in a more distant time?
The projects ready for industrial application are not few, but I believe that the potentially infinite chemical recycling of the plastics we talked about earlier is among those that we will soon see applied. On the other hand, our knowledge of rocks and the subsoil has allowed us to replicate, greatly accelerating it, a phenomenon that occurs spontaneously in nature but with geological times: the mineralization of CO2, that is, its reaction with minerals that fix it permanently. In this way, materials that can be used in the cement industry are obtained and products can be created that will help reduce the carbon footprint of the building. Finally, the most ambitious project in the long term is certainly the magnetic confinement fusion, part of Eni's strategic vision for the transformation of the world of energy. There are numerous Italian and international research institutions with which we collaborate to achieve a great goal: the production of the cleanest, safest and most abundant energy you can think of, that of the sun.