Opinion

Looking ahead at science and technology in 2022 and beyond

January 19, 2022
Dr. Tony Chan
Dr. Tony Chan
By Dr. Tony Chan



Coming into 2022, the focus of science and technology (S&T) has sharpened with fresh urgency: Our climate is undergoing steep changes; an energy transition is in the offing; the world is increasingly hungry and thirsty, and we are failing our SDG goals; we are in the midst of a digital revolution; and present and future pandemics presents serious threats to name just a few.

This shines a welcome light on our core business at KAUST. We are coming of age at an ideal time to support the Kingdom’s aspirations directly and to help train its S&T workforce to face these challenges. Indeed, science is a core enabler for Vision 2030.

Beyond being the president of KAUST, I also serve on boards and advisory committees of many change-making organizations in the Kingdom such as the FII Institute, the Supreme Committee on RDI, SDAIA, KACST, KFUPM and NEOM. They have provided me with an insider view on the ambitious initiatives that the Kingdom is making to advance S&T to help shape its future.

Over recent decades, universities have evolved in many ways, including the readiness and societal expectation, with which we take on national and global challenges facing humankind. S&T is at the core of their solution. They are also where universities must strive to make contributions, both in advancing research and in “practicing what we teach” in running a sustainable and smart campus.

I will use KAUST as an example of how a S&T research university can make a difference, and which areas of S&T I expect will play a major role in 2022 and beyond. As a result of the G20, the Kingdom is pursuing a circular carbon economy (CCE) around the “4 R’s” of reduce, remove, recycle and reuse.

KAUST has contributed by providing intellectual input to the discussion and we started our own Circular Carbon Initiative to support the national CCE Program. The key concept is evolution from a linear economy, which takes raw materials as inputs and produces a combination of products and “waste,” to a circular economy.

The Kingdom is rich in hydrocarbons, which is as an enviable resource around which to build a sustainable “circular” world. Into it, energy is injected, primarily in the form of renewables. This enables many new roles for carbon and hydrogen that have a net zero release to the atmosphere of CO2.

In fact, our scientists are in the vanguard of technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere (both naturally and with the injection of renewable energy) and of producing “green hydrogen” fuel for export. Meanwhile, recovered carbon has innumerable uses in new materials, for example in construction and packaging, where it can replace more energy-intensive materials whose supplies are increasingly threatened. The Circular Carbon concept will be a key global transition taking place now and through the next decades.

Electric vehicles are a key to the circular carbon economy and worthy of close watch in 2022 and beyond. Some countries have announced a ban on the sale of internal combustion engine-powered cars by 2025 and markets are responding. As of 2021, there were more than 300 EV makers in China, a country that is aiming for a massive export market.

This will intensify the economic rivalry between China and the USA, upon which Saudi Arabia can capitalize in both directions. KAEC is slated to become a site for luxury EV producer Lucid, which has significant Saudi investment from PIF. Batteries for EV’s depend upon a reliable and inexpensive supply of Lithium, which KAUST researchers have recently successfully shown can be extracted from seawater brine, in a process that many companies worldwide are now seeking to scale up in partnership.

Saudi Arabia is a global leader in seawater desalination. Thus, brine from desalination, previously seen as problematic waste, now has a real potential to be a concentrated source of valuable minerals. More generally, energy storage will continue to be a key challenge, and opportunity, for major advance in the near future.

Food production is a major challenge for the Kingdom, given the harsh climate. It is also a massive consumer of energy and fresh water in the linear chain from fertilizer and pesticides, through production of plants for human and food animal consumption, through packaging, transport, and preparation, to our plates.

There are exciting scientific frontiers in creating more pest-resistant, drought-tolerant, and salt-tolerant forms of plants. KAUST is leading the way in advancing S&T in this area with respect to rice, wheat and quinoa. KAUST researchers have also advanced the technology of growing vegetables and fruits in energy-efficient, salt-water greenhouses, suitable for coastal desert environments.

Tens of millions of dollars of third-party investment are now propelling KAUST spinout Red Sea Farms to a technology leadership role in 21st century agriculture. Efficient and sustainable production of food is a big global challenge for which S&T is expected to provide solutions for.

The most exciting developments in S&T in 2022 may be in the digital realm. KAUST has added new initiatives, as well as world-class leadership and faculty, in artificial intelligence, smart health, cybersecurity, the modeling of future climate, and robotics.

In partnership with the Kingdom, we are also seeking to enable the “fourth industrial revolution” for efficient, intelligent integration of decentralized systems of production and for control of the rapidly growing Internet of Things.

We also “practice what we preach” by building a “smart home” as a living laboratory for inventiveness in a broader portfolio of on-campus operations we call “KAUST Smart”. The digital revolution is still playing out and will drive the S&T agenda in the foreseeable future.

COVID-19 and mRNA-based vaccines have shown clearly the importance of investing in basic science over long periods, as natural crises do not always afford humanity sufficient time to react. KAUST started our Smart Health Initiative, just months before the pandemic. Even though KAUST does not have schools of medicine or infectious diseases, a number of our faculty have pivoted their research to tackle the pandemic.

One notable success is the first Saudi-developed SFDA approved, RT-PCR test, which returns results much faster while costing much less. The test is now being administered at KAUST and is being commercialized. More innovation will be coming over the horizon from KAUST. The broader potential of mRNA technology will lead to major advances in treating other diseases. Health care related S&T R&D will receive increasing attention and investment globally.

An area of both basic discovery and technological application to watch in 2022 is quantum science, which has received much press recently. Still in its infancy, it has nevertheless captured many technologists’ imagination. While skeptics say that it is over-hyped, no developed country, or indeed any S&T research university, can afford to ignore its development.

While general-purpose quantum devices of sufficient power and reliability may be years away, their use in creating new forms of secure communications and breaking conventional encrypted communication is developing rapidly. With billions of dollars being invested in quantum research initiative, it certainly will play a role in future implications to national security and digital economy.

The public images of science and technology have been burnished by society’s confrontation with major challenges that cannot be addressed through legislation, money, or military might, but require fresh solutions. Never in human history have societies looked to S&T as we are doing today and never has it been more exciting to be on the front lines.

***

— The writer is president of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).


January 19, 2022
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