“Colonization of space is not my research at all, but I have been interested in the issue and well acquainted with it since upper secondary school. But there is also a small connection to my work - the mineral ilmenite, to which I devote much of my research. It is found on most planets like Mars as well as the Moon and when you add ilmenite to reactors, you can transport oxygen from one place to another.”
Ilmenite could thus be used to create oxygen in a defined space where humans can live on a planet and play an important role in what is called terraforming. Unfortunately, there is much to suggest that we will need these new habitats and move into space in the long run, according to Pavleta.
“We are well on our way to destroying the living conditions on earth and I do not think we humans will change our way of life to a sufficient degree and as quickly as needed, be willing to give up everything we are used to or stop generating more and more individuals, which are major challenges for our future existence.”
Clean carbon dioxide and turn plastic into fuel - current research tracks
As a researcher, Pavleta is focused on creating materials and processes that can clean, capture, and store the carbon dioxide we burn and emit in our energy systems and transports. Among other things, she is working to develop the use of ilmenite in combustion reactors. When the mineral is added, the combustion in the system becomes more complete and thus also more efficient. The carbon dioxide that is emitted becomes cleaner, it separates more easily, which improves storage and transport of it. There are industries that have started using ilmenite in their processes and the research is done in collaboration with several companies.
Pavleta is also driven by finding symbiosis between different processes. She takes ilmenite as an example and explains with a laugh how this mineral is looping in her head right now.
“So far, ilmenite has been used for pigment production. In that process the titanium part of the mineral is extracted and used, and the iron part is thrown away. Now we need the iron part but not titanium in our process. It would be interesting if you could bring these different needs together into one and the same process, to make it into a kind of breathing body, where we use and take care of all parts but for different functions.”
Another track that is relevant in the research she works with is making gas of polymers.
“Previously, we worked on converting biomass to natural gas, but now we are working on a new concept based on that technology. We are investigating how to use the plastic that is everywhere, convert it into a synthesis gas that consists of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, and then use that gas to create new plastic. In this way, we get a completely circular process where almost no plastic accumulates as waste.”
Sweden's sustainability profile attracted - love got her to stay
The commitment both as a researcher and as a person in sustainable development attracted Pavleta to Sweden, which was then a major pioneer internationally in the field. And then, she met love here at Chalmers which got her to stay. She has now worked at Chalmers and lived in Sweden for twenty years. In addition to research and education, she is engaged in getting more children and young people interested in technology and chemistry and has represented Chalmers in the science group for the school competition “Teknikåttan” for several years.
Before we part, Pavleta tells me about something else she has been thinking of. We agree that it may be a message to pass on or can be considered as a note in a digital, virtual proposal box, to the department and perhaps also to Chalmers' management.
“I think that is should be more apparent that we are a high-tech university in the physical environment. Imagine if we could have the whole Chemistry building, and also other parts of Chalmers be physically permeated by all the exciting technical innovations that we develop. I think that it could give a different kind of "wow feeling" and increase the inspiration for both students and employees.”
Contact and more about Pavleta Knutsson
Read more research portraits
Interview from 20 April 2020 with Per Malmberg, senior researcher at the Department for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering