Prof. Shalom explains his scientific breakthrough using an analogy to Legos: "Imagine that I have some Lego bricks in only primary colors, and I want to create a certain structure from them after a 'baking' procedure in a high temperature oven. In reality it is a very complex process. The Lego bricks react with each other and their environment, and it is not possible to know what will be obtained from their connections after the heating process. On the other hand," he adds, "the method we have developed makes it possible to determine the functions of the bricks, and thus we can predict what the final shape will be after the material is built, even after reactions at high temperatures."
The unique synthetic methodology opens up new and far-reaching possibilities of utility. "We have shown that the type of materials we are researching can compete with, and in some cases surpass, existing materials in the field of solar energy conversion to fuel." Prof. Shalom demonstrates this: "With the help of these new materials, it is possible to design efficient photoelectrochemical cells that will utilize the entire solar spectrum and also store the energy generated from it. Batteries can be developed without the use of elements that are less abundant on Earth. With careful planning of the necessary materials, it should also be possible to replace very rare metals, which are involved in a variety of processes, using only the five elements mentioned."
Prof. Shalom says that he came to chemistry relatively late. "I would like to say that the periodic table was hanging over my bed and that I disassembled transistors as a child," he says with a smile, "but that was not the case." He grew up in south Tel Aviv and Holon, served additional years in the army, after which he traveled the world with the woman who later became his wife, and only then began his studies in chemistry.
"Because I focused on sciences in high school, I started studying computer science and chemistry at Bar-Ilan University," he says. "But already in the second year," he recalls, "I realized that chemistry is the main thing I wanted to focus on." He went on to pursue a master's degree and a doctorate at Bar-Ilan University, on "Understanding the Mechanisms in Quantum Dot Sensitized Solar Cell Towards Innovative Design, Synthesis and Fabrication of Efficient Quantum Dot (Q.D.) Based Solar Cells". He went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam, Germany. He then returned to Israel, to lead a research group at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In his few years at the university, he has received research grants from the European Union's Research Foundation, and also won the Israel vacuum society (IVS) early career excellence award and the Israel Chemical Society prize for young scientists.
Last summer he was informed that he had won the Blavatnik Award. "It was very exciting and thrilling," he says, "especially because our whole family was in isolation after we all got sick with the coronavirus." He says that apart from the personal feeling of pride, he is also proud to be the first winner of the prestigious award at Ben-Gurion University. "But I hope there will be many others in the coming years,” he says. "It's a great feeling to receive the award. It gives a great boost to our research."
Prof. Shalom explains that the innovations that have taken place in his laboratory can be attributed to the fact that he started studying chemistry in the field of pharmaceuticals, moved on to the more physical side of chemistry in the field of solar cells, and from there went on to study advanced materials science in Germany. "I really like to combine different fields," he says, "and that's one of the most beautiful things in science, in my opinion. The thought of how to combine different areas gives you the ability to get better, move forward, and maybe reach real breakthroughs," he said.
When asked how he creates an atmosphere in a lab that would allow such creativity, he replies: "We try not to be fixed. I encourage my students to work with other people and different members of the staff. I tell them they are allowed to make mistakes and that mistakes are a necessary part of learning, but one should always be curious and creative.
"Sometimes when brainstorming a topic we encounter the question of whether something will work or not. In our field it usually does not take months to find out if a certain direction is leading forward or backward, so I tell them: 'Do not be afraid, try, the worst thing that can happen is that it will not work, but at least we will learn something new’. I believe many breakthroughs come from creative, outside of the box thinking.”
Interviewed by Assaf Uni