Mel Loveridge, Associate Professor (Reader) at Warwick University, gives an overview of the complexities of battery science and how she is working to bring increased understanding to a wider audience.
As the role of batteries has an increasing presence in everyday life, there is now a focus on battery forensic science and advanced characterisation methods – a critical part of understanding the life of a battery, its safety aspects and its cycle life or lifespan.
This forensic analysis and advanced characterisation is the core part the work carried out by Associate Professor (Reader) Mel Loveridge at Warwick University, who says: ‘The aim is to firstly understand and identify early-stage signatures of battery degradation, and ultimately to unearth the root causes and propagation of failure in lithium-ion battery (LIB) components.’
Since LIBs were commercialised in 1991, the electronic devices that use LIBs have diverged considerably, with much larger format batteries now required to electrify transport. This is a critical enabler that is needed if the world is to reach net zero.
‘Much research is focused on developing materials with higher energy and power density to effectively do this, and this is why battery safety considerations are more paramount now than ever,’ says Loveridge.
‘It is only by understanding how materials (electrodes and electrolyte) degrade using sophisticated forensic techniques, that we can feedback into the design of better, safer, more robust and stable components that will last longer,’ she adds.
This is key for the continued range and power improvements in electric vehicles, where ultimately everyday users will benefit from advances in battery materials and manufacturing processes.
This understanding requires effective characterisation capabilities to look at the chemical and structural dynamics that occur inside the battery as it ages. This can be accomplished destructively by autopsy when the battery has reached the end of its life (ex-situ) or done in real time whilst the battery is going through charge-discharge cycling (operando).
Because of the small size of the lithium atom, specialised X-ray based microscopy and other techniques are required to detect and map it. Fully understanding the complex journey of the lithium ions during battery operation is still challenging for the battery community.
Pictured above: A cathode particle. Copyright WMG
To facilitate this greater understanding, WMG was recently awarded an equipment grant to build the UK’s first multi-modal microscope platform with a plasma focused ion beam sectioning device (deliberately designed with batteries in mind, unlike other systems in existence). This includes a time-of-flight mass spectrometer to enable 3D detection and mapping of lithium. The integrated analytical platform will allow us to understand micro to meso scale structure and chemical dynamics over broad length and time scales.
The recent EU 2030 roadmap (Battery 2030+) stated “The accelerated discovery of stabilised battery materials requires special attention to the complex reactions taking place at the many interfaces within them.” Also awarded was a Lord Bhattacharyya PhD project to work on the commissioning and further development of this characterisation platform.
The work is highly challenging and riddled with complexities, but it has attracted significant media and government interest in the last decade and Loveridge has been one of the voices providing accessible, expert insight on a range of media platforms.
‘I have been fortunate to be interviewed for BBC2, Channel 4 and BBC Radio 4, describing how batteries work. I have also participated in energy-related panel discussions with the House of Lord’s Science & Technology Committee and the House of Commons Shadow Cabinet. Prior to this, an article I published on the temperature implications of wireless charging for a mobile phone battery was summarised in a feature in The Telegraph.’
The important work being carried out in battery forensic analysis is set to shape the future of battery technology.
Welcome to the first in this series from the SCI Energy Group – we’ll be blogging regularly on topics of broad interest across the energy spectrum.
Andy Walker, Chair of the SCI Energy Group.
I’m Andy Walker, and I have the privilege of chairing the Energy Group, which comprises members drawn from industry, research institutes, universities, energy policy bodies, R&D organisations and scientific publishers. We meet regularly to discuss and organise events around the changing energy landscape, exploring challenges and opportunities associated with the clean energy transition.
We inform and influence climate change dialogue and policy in the UK and further afield, by taking a fact-based approach to the challenges and potential solutions, with the ultimate aim of making the global energy system sustainable. We do this by bringing together experts, influencers and other interested parties from across the technology, social science and policy landscape within industry, academia and government. In this way, the SCI Energy Group offers thought leadership, insight and debate around the clean energy transition.
Recently, the Energy Group Committee visited Imperial College London and were given a fascinating tour of the carbon capture and storage pilot plant, which Committee member Alex Bowles had very kindly organised. This was a really interesting visit, hosted by Dr Colin Hale and several enthusiastic and knowledgeable chemical engineering students, focused on the critical role that the capture and long-term storage (and utilisation) of CO2 will play within the clean energy transition. We learned that carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) can play four critical roles in the transition to net zero:
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the amount of CO2 captured and stored annually in their Sustainable Development Scenario rises to around 9.5 Gt per year by 2070, with another 0.9 Gt CO2 captured and used to make, for example, fuels and chemicals. (Note that a Gigatonne (Gt) is one billion metric tonnes).
IEA, Growth in world CO2 capture by source and period in the Sustainable Development Scenario, 2020-2070, IEA, Paris. Licence: CC BY 4.0
The Energy Group plans to visit several other sites of interest in the coming months, including Drax and the Energy Innovation Centre in Birmingham, so look out for updates from these future visits.
Our next blog will relate to a recent workshop on Energy Storage, which we organised with strong support from Innovate UK/Knowledge Transfer Network. We brought in representatives from industry, academia, government and the finance sector to discuss this broad topic and to identify the key challenges, as well as outline some key policy questions for the government.
We chose this topic because energy storage is a critical part of the clean energy transition, as the world moves towards an increasing dependency on renewable sources of energy, which are inherently intermittent, yet it doesn’t receive enough attention and support from governments around the world. We’re sure you’ll find the outputs from this workshop very interesting!
CCU International will supply its carbon capture and refinement system to Flue2Chem – a project led by SCI and Unilever which aims to convert industrial waste gases to create more sustainable consumer products. We caught up with CCU International CEO, Beena Sharma, to talk about her career path, motivations and challenges.
Tell us about your career path to date
I joined the Oil & Gas industry after university and began my career as a behavioural safety specialist, specifically for the construction phase of oil and gas projects. Soon after I joined the industry, I was assigned to an LNG plant in Nigeria for training and experience and eventually ended up at a gas plant in Norway before I returned to the UK. With both a psychology and training background I found myself working within a health, safety and environmental remit for various industries including healthcare, construction, manufacturing, and even the tobacco industry.
Beena and colleague at a gas plant in Norway, 2004. Image credit: Beena Sharma
What made you want to work in science and the environmental technology sector in particular?
When I moved to Scotland six years ago it gave me the opportunity to explore the ‘E’ in Health, Safety and Environment further, which was an area that I was always interested in but rarely got the attention it deserved in the industries I worked in. I volunteered on a Scottish climate change project, and this led me to think more deeply about the scientific and technological advances that were needed to achieve net zero by 2045 in Scotland. I knew this was a huge challenge with education, and changes in habit alone could not solve it.
I began to research solutions for hard-to-abate industries and areas that were a challenge to decarbonise, and set up my first business focused on a novel approach to insulating legacy buildings. I then worked on setting up a group of companies that included a solar PV installation company as well as a cleantech business that utilised an electrolysis technology to ozonate tap water for disinfection.
I was invited by my now business partner to help launch a biotechnical business that could create a circular food economy, taking food waste and creating microalgae for use in industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and animal feed. This business incorporated 4 technologies, one of which was carbon capture. After some discussion with potential investors, it became clear that there was a huge interest and demand for carbon capture solutions. This led the team to decide to spin out CCU International as a separate entity and speed up the commercialisation of the technology which had been in development at the University of Sheffield under the lead of Peter Styring, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry.
Which aspects of your work motivate you the most?
The aspects of what I do that motivates me the most is the educational role that I play as the CEO of the business. I am regularly invited to speak on panels, podcasts, webinars and at conferences to share my knowledge with an industry that is transitioning and eager to learn, grow and incorporate new ways of thinking and doing things. It is extremely rewarding to see that people have come away from listening to me with a new perspective and being inspired to go away, take that learning, incorporate it in their ways of working and become innovators themselves.
According to the UN, carbon capture will be a key technology in achieving net zero. It is extremely rewarding to know that the CCU International technology will be a major contributor to this goal and that we can enable decarbonisation with the technology usage across multiple industries, both large and small, which otherwise would not have been possible.
What have been the biggest challenges for you as an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur my biggest challenge has been establishing myself in an industry and environment that is not well represented by women, and in particular women of colour. Often, it comes as a surprise to many that I would be heading up such a business and unfortunately many biases still exist within all genders and backgrounds. It makes it that extra bit harder and there can be a requirement to prove oneself as credible through knowledge or capability before the respect is given.
Image credit: Beena Sharma
The other big challenge has been around the education we provide for all our stakeholders. Innovation is not always welcome, especially in an industry or area where it may seem innovation is not needed. As the saying goes, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’, so stakeholders tend not to realise there is a problem until we educate them on the solution! And not many can accept there may be a better way of doing things than what they themselves have been doing for years!
What would be your top piece of advice for anyone thinking of starting up their own SME?
Starting up in business is a step that many think about doing but very few actually do. Most would be led to believe that you would need to work for months, maybe years on market research, business planning, strategy etc. before starting a business. My one piece of advice would be to start. Most of what you learn will come from doing. It is essential for entrepreneurs to fail, make the mistakes and learn what not to do next time so you have a better chance of success going forward. Many successful businesses emerge from failure.
What is it about the Flue2Chem project that is unique, what made you want to get involved, and what is the potential difference this project could make?
The Flue2Chem project is aimed at converting industrial waste gases into sustainable materials for use in consumer products. What is unique about the Flue2Chem project is that organisations that would normally be competitors have come together to find a solution for a problem that affects us all – as people, as businesses and as a planet. It is rare to see such cross-industry collaboration on this level and this allows both cross-learning and inspires others to come together, collaborate and innovate to solve problems that affect us all, much like the Flue2Chem project. It is a privilege to be part of the project by contributing our technology to the capture component.
CCU International, carbon capture technology. Image credit: Beena Sharma
The project will play a key role in supporting the UK’s 2050 net zero ambitions by providing a more sustainable feedstock for products such as household cleaning materials. The project could demonstrate how the UK could cut 15-20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emission each year. The UK imports large quantities of carbon containing feedstocks that we use in the consumer goods industry. The project will demonstrate how we can secure an alternative domestic source of carbon for these goods and also demonstrate how industry can contribute towards achieving net zero.
Why do you think collaboration of this scale is so important?
Industry coming together to solve climate change issues is essential if we are ever to achieve net zero. Collaboration of this scale sends a strong message and emphasises that change in approach is needed and that innovation is key. This inspires others to do the same. Solutions are needed now and by bringing expertise and experience together we learn and adapt quicker. Solutions are needed now – not in years to come.
The impact this project will have has the potential to be huge, across multiple industries and certainly with how we look at not only capturing carbon emissions but also what we can do with the captured carbon dioxide, promoting a circular carbon economy where in time we learn to value carbon dioxide in a way that has never been done before.
Certainly, for the carbon capture storage community, this project will show that there is a use for captured carbon dioxide other than treating it as a waste and sequestering in underground oil reservoirs. Utilising captured carbon dioxide can create revenue streams for any business or process that emits carbon dioxide.
The collaboration demonstrates the commitment from industries to support decarbonisation, of those industries that are hard to abate whilst at the same time building a new UK value chain.
In the second part of our chat with Bright SCIdea finalist Team Eolic Wall, we found out how they prepared for their presentation and judges’ questions, and what’s next for their innovative wind turbine technology.
The road from Eureka moment to finished product is paved with peril. Team Eolic Wall’s idea for small, modular wind turbines that use magnetic levitation to harness more power than existing turbines could bring wind power generation into our very homes. But bringing a groundbreaking product to market is not just about mastering the science. It must make business sense too.
As with the other Bright SCIdea hopefuls, Team Eolic Wall received free training from SCI in the form of online tutorials from experienced professionals including modules on structuring a business, financial modelling, branding, and marketing.
After completing the training, Eolic Wall rose to meet the challenge. The team qualified for the Bright SCIdea final and, with it, the pivotal presentation in front of a live audience and panel of expert judges.
Many of us take it as a given that we speak to people at work in our native tongue. The nuances of communication – the cultural subtleties and oddities of the English language – aren’t a concern. But Team Eolic Wall had to present in their second language.
‘This was not our first international presentation, but it was the first one in a foreign language,’ said Alfredo Calle, Eolic Wall founder, ‘so that's always a little bit intimidating until one gets used to it.’
The key to them nailing the pitch was in the spade-work. Calle and his colleagues rehearsed the speech until they knew it by heart. ‘It’s all about training and preparation,’ he said. ‘The more you rehearse, the more confident you feel when the presentation moment comes.’
Of course, the presentation is predictable but the judges’ questions are less so. Having undergone the rigours of competition, Calle recommends that this year’s entrants prepare by trying to predict the types of questions they will be asked. A cold rehearsal could help with the potentially stunning situation of someone throwing questions at you from strange angles.
That team Eolic Wall presented its technology online made theirs even trickier still, especially given a technical hitch at the beginning. But they had polished the presentation to a smoothness that offset such difficulties and came away as joint winners of the Audience Award.
The only lingering regret for them was that Covid prevented them from coming to London. ‘We wish we could have made it to the final,’ he said. ‘Facing the judges and audience live would have been a tremendously valuable and enriching experience.’
Since the Bright SCIdea final, the Eolic Wall is being built brick by brick. The team has received three grants in recent months including one from ProCiencia, the largest innovation agency of the Peruvian government.
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.
However, perhaps the most exciting development is the technology itself. ‘We have accomplished a peripherally supported wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation,’ Calle said. ‘That's a huge milestone that makes us believe we are building something big.’
Calle hopes for more investment to develop the technology further. At heart, he believes the Eolic Wall will give regular people the chance to generate affordable wind energy from home.
‘We are working out a solution to democratise wind energy for the sake of this blue rock we call home.’
>> Find out how Team Eolic Wall’s innovative technology in part 1 of this blog.
Imagine owning a small wind turbine that generates all of your home’s energy needs. As the clock counts down on entries for for the 2023 Bright SCIdea Challenge, we caught up with Team Eolic Wall, the Audience Winner for the 2022 competition.
Eolic Wall was always a nice fit for Bright SCIdea. The team spotted a problem in our renewable energy mix and came up with a scientific business idea to solve it. They saw that wind energy is generated for the public, but it isn’t generated by the public. This stands in bright contrast to solar power generation.
‘Today, 40% of all installed capacity in solar energy is based on solar panels installed on the rooftops of home and corporate buildings,’ said Alfredo Calle, founder of Eolic Wall. ‘The remaining 60% correspond to solar farms.’
Eolic Wall's wall-mounted wind turbine is designed to power homes and offices in situ.
The wind industry is different. ‘Only 1% of the installed capacity comes from households and businesses,’ he added. ‘That is, 99% of all installed capacity in the world comes from wind farms. That sort of concentration is a problem that hampers the energy transition.’
Calle believes this disparity hampers the move from fossil fuel dependency to clean, renewable energy. For many, micro-generation is key. We need to put power – renewable power – in the hands of the people. His idea is to make wind energy available in the home, just as solar exists on roofs everywhere.
The scale of this task is daunting. It turns out there’s a reason why we don’t all have wind turbines bolted onto our homes. The problem, Calle argues, is that a windmill must be large to be efficient.
He believes the Eolic Wall could change that – that this wall-mounted wind turbine is efficient enough to power our homes and offices.
‘We have created a technology that not only doubles wind speed to harvest more power from the same wind resources, but also has a wind turbine that works with magnetic levitation to almost eliminate any friction.’
So, how did a team based out of the National University of Engineering in Peru and Universidade Estadual Paulista in Brazil end up competing for the £5,000 first prize in the Bright SCIdea final?
Chance. Fortune. Happenstance. Calle and his colleagues came upon Bright SCIdea through a social media post that immediately captured their attention.
‘We thought that the Eolic Wall was ideal for Bright SCIdea because of the huge positive impact that this technology could have,’ he said, ‘and also because it perfectly fit into Bright SCIdea’s thesis of supporting ideas in the intersection of business, innovation and science.’
Applying was simple, although the business plan submission was intimidating at first. However, like all BrightSCIdea applicants they received coaching, and their brainchild found form.
‘The key driver to overcome that challenge was not to miss any training sessions and tutorials,’ Calle said. ‘The good news is that after going through the whole process you feel that everything was worthwhile. No pain, no gain.’
Check out fellow 2022 finalist Klara Hatinova from Team Happy BioPatch in conversation with the Periodic Fable podcast.
Have we underestimated the eco-anxiety middle-aged and older people feel? According to a recent survey, younger folks aren’t the only ones frowning at the horizon. Eoin Redahan writes.
When you think of a middle-aged person suffering from exo-anxiety, what do you imagine? Is it a grey-haired woman gazing from a mountain peak with a single, heroic tear staining her cheek? Is it an auld fella rending his garments and shaking his fist at the sun?
I mean, possibly, but the reality is probably less dramatic. It could be the Pakistani householder who wonders if her family home will be swept away in the next flood. It might be the 39-year-old Australian who wonders if his country will be habitable when his young child grows up.
It might be the Maldivian who wonders if his homeland will go the way of Atlantis within 20 years. It was me when someone decided it would be a good idea to have a barbecue in the fields beside my house in the middle of the heatwave – when the grass was as dry as straw and wildfires scorched in south London.
Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus, 1669. Will people pore over maps of the Maldives in the same way?
The presumption by many is that it’s only the young who feel anxious about climate change, for it is they who will inherit the mess. However, according to recent ONS statistics, the middle-aged and the old are almost as worry-weary as young people.
Having analysed a recent ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, straw specialist firm Drinking Straw filtered some of the stats. They reveal that 62% of UK people over the age of 16 worry that rising temperatures will directly affect them by 2030. Of these, 70% of 16-29 year olds were worried about the heat, but 59% of 50-69 year olds were also worried, as were 57% of those aged 70 and over.
In other areas, the differences were even less stark. When it came to anxiety over extreme weather events, 48% of all adults were worried – only slightly less than the 49% of 16 to 29 year olds who did so.
Similarly, regarding water supply shortages, 40% of all adults are concerned about them overall, compared to 43% of those aged 16 to 29. Admittedly, young people are more worried than older adults about rising sea levels (45% vs. 31%), but the differences are noticeably narrow in most metrics.
Surprisingly, it turns out the percentage of those who don’t care at all about the merciless heat, parched land, rising sea levels, and freak weather events is fairly consistent across all segments, with the 12% of 16-29 year olds not giving a fig similar to the 14% of indifferent adults.
ONS figures reveal that most people have made climate-friendly changes to their day-to-day lives, whether they grew up in the age of renewables or the age of coal.
Broadly speaking, UK adults are becoming more eco-conscious, if data from the ONS’ Climate change insights, families and households, UK: August 2022 survey are to be believed. The survey has found that 77% of adults have made some, or a lot of changes, to their lifestyles to tackle climate change.
When the remaining 23% were asked why they made no change to their lifestyles, the most common reason given was: the belief that large polluters should make changes before individuals, followed closely by those who felt that individual change wouldn’t make much of a difference.
It’s clear to most of us that the government must help drive change, including on our roads. Despite the UK’s lagging electric vehicle infrastructure, the study revealed that the number of licensed zero emission vehicles, ultra-low emission vehicles, and plug-in vehicles increased by 71% or more last year.
If people knew there were sufficient charging points dotted around their areas – and if they were further incentivised to give up their gas-guzzling vehicles – those numbers would surely increase.
As bleak as the situation is, it is heartening to see our attitudes changing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just read a climate-related story that brought a tear to my eye. If anyone wants me, I’ll be weeping in a dark room (passive-cooled, mercifully).
How well equipped is the UK’s battery supply chain to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles? We took a closer look to mark National Battery Day.
Main image editorial credit: Phaustov/Shutterstock
For many of us, it’s exciting to see the growth of the electric vehicle industry. Our personal transport will be cleaner. Our roads will be quieter. Indeed, from 2030 the UK government will ban the sale of pure internal combustion engine cars, and the widening role of ultra-low emission zones will hit many motorists in the pocket. Whether we like it or not, change is coming.
That does not mean we are prepared for it. As demand for electric and hybrid vehicles accelerates, and more stringent trade rules put pressure on having a local battery supply chain (stricter Rules of Origin for trade will come into force by 2027), the UK must get its complete supply chain up to speed.
For this to happen, chemists, suppliers, manufacturers, innovators, government representatives, and others need to make strides in several areas. Over the past year, a group of more than 50 participants at SCI’s Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops have identified next generation technology, the scale-up of innovative technologies, the skills and knowledge base, and standards for materials testing as areas for improvement.
Brine pools for lithium mining. There is a global clamour for raw materials including lithium.
The UK also needs a consistent stream of key battery materials. It needs technologies that reduce the dependence on some of the current materials for hybrid and electric vehicles. It must integrate efficient battery recycling and manufacturing approaches to reduce its dependence on long-distance imports and much coveted raw materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.
It is a big challenge. As David Bott, SCI’s Head of Innovation (who helped run SCI’s five Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain workshops) said, there isn’t enough of a UK electric battery supply chain at the moment.
>> Find out what the experts thought about improving the UK battery supply chain in our Energising the UK Battery Supply Chain Part 5 video.
David did note that the UK Government (through UK Research and Innovation) has been investing in the scale-up of cell assembly through the Energy Innovation Centre at WMG (from 2012/3) and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (through UKRI and the Automotive Propulsion Centre). It will also support the construction of Britishvolt’s electric battery ‘gigafactory’ in Blyth, Northumberland.
However, he added that: ‘All of them, however, are talking about the assembly of the cells and 60% of the value is in the materials. We need a battery materials supply chain in the UK – not all the way back to mining, of course, but as much as we can.’
Recent developments in the UK have been heartening, but many more will be needed to create a viable battery supply chain.
Smoother collaboration is also required. ‘We need recognition that the UK needs more support for the chemistry part of the supply chain,’ he said. ‘We need a lot more collaboration – engineers need to understand that chemistry companies would engage more if they understood the size of the opportunity. The main thing we need at the moment is awareness of the opportunities.’
Despite the difficulties, green shoots have appeared recently. In late January, the government announced that it has backed Britishvolt’s aforementioned plans to build large volumes of electric vehicle batteries (through the Automotive Transformation Fund). According to the government, the factory will produce enough batteries for more than 300,000 vehicles a year and create 3,000 direct, highly-skilled skilled jobs. Britishvolt have also announced a partnership with Glencore to recycle battery materials.
>> Sign up for our next Energising the UK’s Battery Supply Chain workshop.
Oxford-based chemical products manufacturer Nexeon has secured US$80 million (about £59 million) in funding to scale up the production of its silicon anode materials. Finally, Sheffield-based sodium-ion battery technology company Faradion has been acquired by Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries for £100 million. A further £25 million will be invested as growth capital to accelerate the commercial rollout of its sodium-ion battery technology.
Faradion says that its sodium-ion technology provides ‘significant advantages compared to lithium-ion technology, including greater sustainability, a patented zero-volt safe transport and storage capability’.
So, there is some good news to celebrate as you gather around with your families to celebrate National Battery Day. The battery supply chain, unfortunately, must wait for another day.
What is the future of electric cars? Find out more in this Autotrader article.
Johnson Matthey has launched a technology to help create a green hydrogen-based aviation fuel, while the European Commission has approved a €900 million scheme (£750 million approximately) to support renewable hydrogen investments.
SCI Corporate Partner Johnson Matthey has developed HyCOgen to convert CO2 and green hydrogen into a scalable and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The speciality chemicals company says it has combined this Reverse Water Gas Shift technology with FT CANS Fischer Tropsch technology through a catalysed process. With this approach, the green hydrogen and CO2 are converted into carbon monoxide, which is combined with additional hydrogen to form syngas.
Integration with the FT CANS technology is used to turn 95% of the CO2 into a high quality synthetic crude oil. This synthetic crude oil can then be upgraded into sustainable, drop-in fuel products for aviation transport – a sector responsible for 12% of transport-related CO2 emissions, according to the Air Transport Action Group.
Green hydrogen fuel, produced using renewable energy, could help decarbonise the aviation industry.
Jane Toogood, Sector Chief Executive at Johnson Matthey, said: “Given the challenges associated with new propulsion technologies and airport infrastructure, plus the long asset life of aircraft, there are significant hurdles in moving from hydrocarbon-based aviation fuel to alternatives such as battery electric or hydrogen.
“By combining HyCOgen with FT CANS, we can now deliver customers a cost-efficient, reliable and scalable technology to help increase SAF production, backed by our track record of successful technology development and commercialisation.”
>> Concerned about climate change? Find out what you can do in this free webinar: https://www.soci.org/events/hq-events/2022/why-we-ignore-climate-change-and-what-we-can-do-about-it
In other hydrogen-related news, the global hydrogen industry has received a boost with the European Commission approving a €900 million German scheme to support investments in renewable hydrogen production in non-EU countries.
The aim of the H2Global project is to meet the growing EU demand for renewable hydrogen production, which is expected to increase significantly as EU countries reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Even though the initiative will benefit EU countries, UK-based organisations concerned with hydrogen power could benefit from this investment.
>> Young chemists are getting creative in the fight against climate change. Read more in our COP26 review blog.
Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition who is in charge of competition policy, said: “This €900 million German scheme will support projects leading to substantial reductions in greenhouse emissions, in line with the EU’s environmental and climate objectives set out in the Green Deal.
“It will contribute to addressing the increasing demand for renewable hydrogen in the Union, by supporting the development of this important energy source in areas of the world where it is currently not exploited with a view to importing it and selling it in the EU. The design of the scheme will enable only the most cost effective projects to be supported, reducing costs for taxpayers and minimising possible distortions of competition.”
Our careers often take us in unforeseen directions. Dr Jessica Jones, Applications Team Leader at Croda, chatted to us about moving from research into management, the benefit of developing softer skills, and her unexpected mentor.
Tell me about your career to date.
I came through university in what is probably seen as the ‘traditional’ way. I did a Master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Liverpool, with a year working in industry, which I really enjoyed. And then after I finished my Master’s, I did a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. I always wanted to work in industry, but I really enjoyed research, so I decided to do the PhD as I thought the skills would be useful for either career path.
Jessica Jones in the lab
Were you tempted by a career in academia?
No, I never felt like I was the kind of person who had what it takes to succeed in academia. I never felt like I could ever come up with the nucleus of a new idea. I always felt like someone could give me the slimmest thread of a thought and I could turn it into something, but I could never have that thread myself. From my perspective, academia can be a lonely career and I enjoy and benefit from working in a team with other people.
So, after I finished my PhD, I joined Croda in 2013 as a Research Scientist in our synthesis division, in a synthetic chemistry R&D role. Over seven years, I progressed from Research Scientist to Lead Research Scientist and then Team Leader. During that time, I moved around a bit. I worked at different manufacturing sites, in different research areas and did lots of different projects across multiple sectors.
In February 2020, I was asked if I wanted to go on secondment, as a Team Leader, to one of our applications teams in Energy Technologies. Energy Technologies focuses on lubricants, oil and gas, and batteries. I really enjoyed the secondment and after it came to an end, I chose to take it on as a permanent position rather than return to my old role.
What does this role entail?
My role entails managing a team of application and lead application scientists who work on a range of projects, from designing new products to supporting customers with specific problems and working with universities on more theoretical, developmental ideas.
At the moment, we’re working on a lot of what we call EV (electric vehicle)-friendly fluids. When you move from traditional combustion engines to electric vehicles, there’s quite a change in the properties needed for the fluids within the engine. We make the speciality additives that go into the base oils that support functions such as reduced engine wear and improved fuel efficiency.
The EV market is very different to the traditional car market, which is dominated by big lubricant manufacturers. EVs are so new that Croda has been at conception discussions with world leading EV companies. The whole sector is very data driven and, coming from a research scientist background, that appeals to me very much. It’s very exciting to be at the cutting-edge of innovation with what we’re doing within electrification and renewable energy.
Which projects are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got two long-term new development projects that are both progressing to the final stages of manufacturing. These are products that I designed the chemistry for when working in the synthesis team. It can take four or five years to get a new project through the development process, and I’ve continued to manage them throughout their timeline, even though I have moved into different roles. They are both speciality additives for crude oil to reduce the temperature at which impurities develop, to allow the more difficult oil fractions to be brought out of the ground without it solidifying in pipes when they transport it.
What does a general working day involve?
There are eight people in our team, and I am responsible for managing six of them. There are two other senior technical specialists I work alongside. They have lots of experience in the industry and working with academia, and the three of us coordinate the projects across the team.
My role is to translate the pipeline and the strategy from our senior leaders into what we do in the lab every day. I have three projects that I'm running, which are new product launches. Alongside that, I coordinate the project pipeline and make sure everyone is able to manage their projects and progress them. I do a small amount of lab work, but I would say it makes up 5% of my time.
I always thought I would be a specialist when I joined Croda because of my PhD and lab experience. However, over the time I’ve worked here, I started to really enjoy working with other people; and I think I probably realised I had better skills at motivating other people, building up teams, and networking. So that became a lot more important, and I chose to move into the management side of things but still within a technical function.
Interpersonal skills are sometimes underrated in management. How do you approach this side of the job?
I think I am quite at ease around other people as I am very extroverted. I think that makes me different from a lot of people in my team. For example, my boss and I are the total opposite of each other, but it works really well because it means that we complement each other perfectly. He’s very strategic and he likes to take his time to make decisions. He likes to review all the data very methodically and is good at using detail to evaluate a project’s true value, whereas I’m much more about talking to people, bringing everyone together and acting quickly to get things done. But I think the balance of both works incredibly well for us as a team.
During lockdown we received a webinar on personal resilience, and the session was about your outward projection to other people. About 70% of how you are perceived by others is made up of how people see you and your ‘brand’. Your technical expertise and actual ability to do your job only makes up about 20% of how people view you and how successful you are. And I think as a scientist, you get a bit focused on delivering the project successfully, thinking that you need to be really amazing at delivering data, but people forget about the need to work on themselves to develop as well.
What part of your job motivates you most?
It’s a combination. The science we’re working on is very exciting, and I really enjoy getting all the projects together, making sure everything fits together and that everyone’s doing the right thing. But emotionally, it’s the team that gets me up in the morning – coming in, seeing what they do, how they have been. I’ve been really lucky over the past 12 months, being able to see some of my colleagues really develop. I’ve taken a lot of pride in realising the impact you can have on other people and allowing yourself to take credit for that.
>> What is life like as a materials scientist? Take a look at our thought-provoking conversation with Rhys Archer, founder of Women of Science.
Which mentors have helped you along the way?
There’s one person who stands out. I was asked to take on this extra role to become a European technical rep in one of our business areas. I’d never done anything like that before so the idea that I was going to be put out there, in front of customers, as the technical expert for the business was quite terrifying.
I was to work with the European Sales Manager of the business, and we ended up traveling a lot together. He was the opposite to me. He’s very experienced but had a reputation as a bit of a loud, burly Yorkshireman and I wasn’t sure how we would fit together, but we got on like an absolute house on fire. He was so helpful to me, not just in giving feedback on what I was doing in the role, but general conversations about career and life outside of work and personal support. Having that kind of professional relationship develop has made a massive difference. Just meeting someone like that and having a person to go to when I needed help, someone who I really trust to have my best interests at heart. It was very beneficial for the number of years that we worked together. Since then, we have moved on to different roles, but we still stay in touch, and it has taught me the value in reaching out to different people to help me to develop.
Jessica with the first product she developed at Croda.
In terms of equality and diversity, do you think enough is being done in your sector?
I think there is always more that can be done but I’ve never felt my gender has hindered me in my career and I’ve always felt very supported at Croda. Sometimes people are in a rush to see change immediately, especially when the senior management at Croda and many other STEM organisations is still made up of a majority of white males.
I like to think that the support myself and others have been given will mean that, as we progress, there will be more representation in senior positions. I would always want to achieve something on merit rather than to tick a box for equality. If that means it will take time for the generation I am in now to get to those positions, then I can wait. Importantly, I genuinely think everything that’s being put in place at Croda, and more broadly across the STEM sector, will pave the way for more diverse representation in senior roles in the future.
Do you have any advice you’d give to someone starting out?
Having a mentor is very important. I never thought I needed one until accidently developing that relationship. Since moving into different roles, I’ve set out to deliberately engage with people for that purpose. I would encourage people to seek out those who are different from themselves and engage with them.
I also think it’s important not to be afraid to ask for things you want. If you want to get a promotion or seek out further development, it’s often tempting to ask permission. If you can demonstrate to people that you are ready, it is more effective.
Generally, I think people, especially women, really underestimate the value of self-promotion as they worry it can be perceived as arrogance. A lot of people think that if you simply do a good job, then you’ll be recognised for that. That would be amazing if it were true, but people will judge you on how you’re perceived and how you present yourself, as well as what you do.
I think you need to put yourself out there. Whether it’s getting involved in something outside of your day job or taking the lead in a particular task, it’s a great way to get recognised. Sometimes it won’t work out and it can be hard to take the criticism when that happens, but you always learn from the outcome. I always prefer to have given something a go, even if I fail, than never to try.
Finally, I think people should always be themselves because everyone has unique skills to offer. I don’t think people would look at me and think that I look like the manager of a technical team, but I’m comfortable with my own style and that makes other people comfortable with it too.
>> We’re always interested in hearing about different people’s diverse career paths into chemistry. If you’d like to share yours, get in touch with us at: email@example.com
A group of inspiring young scientists took centre stage at COP26 on 4 November to show how the next generation of chemists is finding tangible climate change solutions.
In a day dominated by what countries pledged to stop doing at COP26, such as pursuing coal power and financing fossil fuel projects overseas, it was refreshing to learn about low-carbon technologies and the young people driving their development. At the Next Gen forum, we heard from an array of young chemists, all associated with SCI, who are at the sharp edge of this change.
We heard from Brett Parkinson, Senior Engineer of Low Carbon Fuels and Energy Technologist at C-Zero, who is working on commercialising a way to decarbonise natural gas. The California-based company’s technology converts the natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon to provide a clean energy source while sequestering the carbon; and the aim is to have this process up and running next year.
Natasha Boulding is building towards Net Zero a different way – with a greener concrete. The CEO and Co-founder of Sphera has developed a lightweight carbon negative additive using waste plastics that aren’t currently being recycled. She says the company’s blocks are the same strength and price as existing concrete blocks, but with 30% more thermal insulation. There is also the added benefit of reusing waste materials that would otherwise have gone to landfill or been incinerated.
Another solution discussed by Dominic Smith, Process Development Engineer at GSK, reduces energy consumption through green chemistry. He is trying to find greener ways to make medicines using enzymes. These enzymes, which can be found in plants and soil, replace chemical synthesis steps to cut energy consumption during processing and reduce hazardous waste.
Panel (left to right): Dominic Smith, Natasha Boulding, Clare Rodseth, Jake Coole, Nikita Patel, and Oliver Ring (Brett Parkinson spoke via video link).
It was apparent from the discussion that many solutions will be needed for us to reach our climate change targets. On the one hand, Jake Coole, Senior Chemist in Johnson Matthey’s Fuel Cells team, is working on membrane electrode assembly for hydrogen fuel cells to help us transition to hydrogen-powered buses and trucks.
At the same time, Clare Rodseth, an Environmental Sustainability Scientist at Unilever, has been using lifecycle assessments to reduce the environmental impact of some of the 400 Unilever brands people use all over the world every day. For example, this work has helped the company move away from petrochemical ingredients in its home care products. ‘Even small changes,’ she said, ‘have the potential to bring about large-scale change.’
However, for each of the technologies discussed, barriers remain. For Coole and co., having a readily available supply of hydrogen and charging infrastructure will be key. And for Dominic Smith and his colleagues, the use of enzymes in green chemistry is still in its infancy; and getting enzymes that are fast enough, stable enough, and produce the right yield is difficult. Nevertheless, he noted that manufacturers are now using enzymes to produce the drug amoxicillin, reducing the carbon footprint by about 25%
And some things will take time to change. Natasha Boulding noted that concrete is the second most used material in the world after drinking water, and we simply can’t create many green technologies, such as wind turbines, without concrete foundations.
She said the construction industry is quite traditional but also pointed to perceptible change, with the green concrete market growing and companies becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprints.
Collaboration was seen as crucial in producing climate change solutions.
The reality is that global action on climate change is recent. As Brett Parkinson said: ‘the main reason we’re talking about it now is that there’s a driver to do it. Until the last decade, the world hadn’t cared about CO2 emissions. They just talked about caring about it.’
How pivotal is science in all of this?
So, what could be done to make climate action more effective? For Parkinson, effective policy is key. He argued that if the market isn’t led by policies that encourage low-carbon innovations, then it won’t work as needed. ‘It all starts with effective decarbonisation policy,’ he said. ‘Legacy industries are very resistant to change. If you don’t have strong and consistent policies… then they’re not going to adapt.’
Another key to our low-carbon evolution is collaboration, and the SCI provides a confluence point for those in industry and academia to work together to produce innovative, low-carbon products. As Clare Rodseth said: ‘Collaboration is really important – linking up people who can actually come together and address these problems.’
As the discussion came to a close, you had the impression that the debate could have gone on for much longer. ‘Hopefully, we’ve demonstrated that there is action, and it’s being driven by young people like our panellists today,’ summarised Oliver Ring, the event’s co-Chair, before asking for the result of the audience poll.
The question: How many of those watching believed that science is pivotal in providing climate change solutions?
The answer: Just the 100%.
>> Thank you to Johnson Matthey for sponsoring the event, to the speakers for sharing their time and expertise, and to co-chairs Nikita Patel and Oliver Ring for doing such an excellent job.
Marking Black History Month and following on from the #BlackInChem initiative, SCI is continuing its look back at some of the unsung Black scientists who pioneered, and made important contributions, to the advancement of science.
Today we profile Lewis Howard Latimer, much admired by his contemporaries; Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but sadly a name, and story, that is not as well known.
Lewis Howard Latimer | Image Credit: By Unknown author - http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/news/pressReleases/img/Lewis.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032528
Lewis Howard Latimer, the youngest of four children, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4 September 1848. His father, George Latimer, a slave who had escaped, became something of a cause celebre when his owner recaptured him. However, abolitionists took his case to the Supreme Court and his freedom was secured.
Lewis proved to be an excellent student, with a particular flair for drawing, as well as writing poetry and stories, but lack of finance and restricted access to education meant that by 15 years of age, Lewis had joined the US Navy. The history books indicate that he was honourably discharged in 1865; when the Civil War ended.
Soon after, Latimer found work as an office boy with the patent firm Crosby, Halstead and Gould. It is here that combining his talent for drawing, and developing the skills of a draughtsman he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman. The history books record that Latimer’s first patent, in 1874 with colleague Charles Brown, was an improved toilet system for railroad cars.
Lewis Latimer was instrumental in helping Alexander Graham Bell file his patent for the telephone ahead of his competitors.
Latimer had many inventions, but it could be argued that his drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, helped seal his place in science history. The story goes that Bell was in a race against time, as rivals were also looking to gain patent rights for a similar device. Bell hired Latimer who used his expertise in drawing and submitting patent applications to help Bell file his patent just hours, it said, before his rival in 1876.
By 1880 Latimer had taken up the post of mechanical draughtsman for the inventor Hiram Maxim, who was also the founder of the US Electric Lighting Company. Now focused on incandescent lighting, Latimer along with Joseph Nichols, invented a light bulb which used a carbon filament, an improvement on Thomas Edison’s paper filament. The invention, patented in 1881, was sold to the US Electric Lighting Company in the same year.
Latimer invented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs | Editorial credit: Claudio Zaccherini / Shutterstock.com
1A booklet by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation noted; ‘Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glass blowing. In just nine months Latimer had the factory in full production.’
In 1882 Latimer left Hiram Maxim and in 1884 joined the Edison Electric Light Company, where he was given the title draughtsman-engineer. In 1890 he joined the Edison Legal Department, and in 1893 testified in a case where the company said that its incandescent lamp patents had been infringed. In 1896 the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed and Latimer became its Chief Draughtsman. He continued in that role until 1911 when he joined the consulting firm Edwin W Hammer.
On 24 January 1918, Latimer was named one of the 28 charter members – and the only African-American member – of the Edison Pioneers, ‘a distinguished group of people who worked to keep the ideals of Thomas Edison alive.’ The Edison Pioneers helped create the US’ electric power industry.
Latimer received patents for several inventions, including the safety elevator. He also had a passion for social justice. In a letter written in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Coloured Men, Latimer wrote: ‘I have faith to believe that the nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the constitution.’
Latimer died on 11 December 1928. Edison Pioneers historian and long time private secretary of Thomas Edison, William H. Meadowcroft wrote1 ‘Lewis Howard Latimer was of the coloured race, the only one in our organisation, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristics of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings…We hardly mourn his inevitable going so much as we rejoice in pleasant memory at having being associated with him in a great work for all peoples under a great man.’
1For more information on Latimer’s life, work and legacy, see the Edison Electric Institute resource: Thomas Alva Edison Associate: Lewis Howard Latimer: A Black Inventor.
A little talked about element, with the atomic mass 140, plays a surprisingly important role in everyday life. It has not only lit many a path, but can be credited with improving and saving the lives of billions of people by enabling cleaner air.
In his talk '140Ce: White light & Clean Air' Andy Walker, Johnson Matthey’s Technical Marketing Director explained why the soft, ductile silvery-white metal Cerium, deserves more recognition.
Walker began by outlining the history of SCI, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. As an employee of Johnson Matthey, Walker highlighted that George Matthey was among the pioneers of SCI. In addition Walker explained that his PhD research had involved looking at catalysts that included Cerium.
Cerium is a lanthanide and the 26th most abundant element on earth. Indeed it was the first lanthanide to be discovered, found as its ore cerium silicate, in 1803. Cerium makes up 66ppm of the earth’s crust, which is about 5 times as much as lead. It is the only one of the lanthanides able to take on the +4 oxidation state, making it very useful in some of its applications. It is mined in the US, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australian and China, with annual global production of 24 000 tonnes.
However, this straightforward look at the history of Cerium conceals a much more interesting narrative about how this element shaped the life of a number of prominent chemists of the day. Indeed Cerium was found as early as 1751 at a mine in Vestmanland, Sweden by Axel Cronstedt, who also discovered Nickel. Believing it to be an ore of Tungsten, he sent it to Carl Wilhelm Scheele for analysis. However, Scheele was not able to identify it as a new element.
This turn of events for Scheele, perhaps unfairly, helped to seal his moniker as the ‘unlucky chemist’. Scheele, a prominent chemist and pharmacist, had a number of discoveries to his name. He isolated lactic acid, and discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulphide.
But as Walker explained, his most notable discovery was oxygen, some three years before Joseph Priestley. Sadly for Scheele; it took him six years to publish his findings, by which time Priestley had already presented his data. Putting a contemporary slant on Scheele’s misfortune, Walker added that the cautionary tale here was that getting things out into the public domain as soon as possible can be important to ensure credit goes to the right people.
Further work by Scheele led to the discovery of a number of elements including barium and chlorine, but sadly he did not receive any recognition because he didn’t manage to isolate them and identify them correctly. The chemist Sir Humphrey Davy did so, some years later, getting the credit for their discovery and isolation.
So it was in 1803 that chemists Wilhelm Hisinger and Jons Jacob Bezelius proved that Cerium was indeed a new element, naming it Cerium after an asteroid/dwarf planet which had been called Ceres. The successful isolation of Cerium took place in 1875, carried out by American chemists William Hillebrand and Thomas Norton, by passing an electric current through molten cerium chloride.
99.95% fine cerium isolated on white background
Once isolated, the earliest application of Cerium was in incandescent gas mantles. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach, in 1891, he perfected a mixture of 99% thorium oxide and 1% ceria, which gave a soft white light. Introducing his new mantle commercially in 1892, von Welsbach was able to monetise his development selling his product throughout Europe.
Gas mantles have been replaced, but Cerium’s importance in producing white light remains. As Walker explained, most white LEDs use a blue gallium nitride LED covered by a yellowish phosphor coating made of cerium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet crystals.
In the medical arena, Cerium was used by Sir James Young Simpson, Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh who did a lot of work in the area of anaesthetics. Simpson found that cerium nitrate suppressed vomiting, particularly that associated with morning sickness, and well into the last century, medication containing Cerium could be bought over the counter. In addition Cerium has been the basis of treatments for burns.
Other applications for this versatile element are self cleaning ovens and mischmetal alloy, used in flints for cigarette lighters. Walker shared that the chemist and author Primo Levi, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, was able to steal cerium-iron rods from the laboratory he was forced to work in. Making them into cigarette lighter flints, he was able to barter for bread. Cerium is used to harden surfaces; it is a good polishing agent. Cerium sulphide has been used to replace the pigment cadmium red as a non-toxic alternative and Cerium is widely used across the chemical industry as a catalyst to produce a host of chemicals.
Catalysis is probably where Cerium has impacted most people as the element is the basis for the catalytic converters that have provided cleaner air for billions of people. Walker explained that the driver for the development came during the 1950s when photochemical smog was a problem in the Los Angeles Basin. Measurements at the time indicated that vehicles were responsible for the majority of the hydrocarbon and NOx emissions that led to the polluted air.
This turn of events led researchers to develop systems that could mitigate the emissions. Johnson Matthey was among those doing the early work on catalytic converters. Meanwhile, the automotive industry was pushing back on their introduction, concerned about the costs, durability and effectiveness. Working with Ricardo Engineering, Johnson Matthey carried out durability tests over 25 000 miles which also showed that the catalysts could pass US emissions tests.
The catalysts had to operate in three ways, at the same time, oxidising carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) while reducing NOx. Early catalysts, circa 1975, were based on Palladium and Platinum and focused on oxidising the CO and HC. Around 1978 a second catalyst was introduced to reduce NOx.
However, the introduction of Cerium then made it possible to develop a single catalyst that was able to carry out the functions that the researchers had wanted to achieve. Hence, 1981 saw the introduction of the three way catalytic converter with all three reactions enabled over a single catalyst. More recently ceria-zirconia oxide based catalysts have been developed with much higher oxygen storage capacity than ceria.
The impact of these developments has allowed the implementation of much more stringent air quality and emissions standards. Indeed Johnson Matthey estimates that its Cerium-based catalysts are responsible for removing around 40 tonnes of pollutants every minute of every day.
A single element has indeed impacted many lives.
As silicon reaches its solar ceiling, perovskite has emerged as one of the main materials of choice in the next generation of solar panels. Indeed, Oxford PV’s much anticipated perovskite-silicon solar cell could take conversion efficiency well beyond what is currently achieved on the roofs of our homes.
The benefits of perovskite are well known at this stage. It could increase the energy we harvest from the sun and improve solar cell efficiency, and its printability could make fabrication cheaper. However, as with almost everything, there are drawbacks.
According to researchers at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Swansea University, the solvents used to control the crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication hinder the large-scale manufacture of printed carbon perovskite cells. This is due to the toxicity and potentially psychoactive effects of these materials.
The SPECIFIC team claims to have found a way around this after discovering a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone. They say this replacement solvent could be used without affecting solar cell performance. Furthermore, they say it is non-toxic, sustainable, and suitable for large-scale manufacturing.
Left - solvent normally used to make solar cells, which is toxic.
Right - new green solvent developed by Swansea University researchers from the SPECIFIC project
| Image Credit: Swansea University
‘This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned,’ said research group leader Professor Trystan Watson. ‘We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.’
As the conversion efficiency of solar panels improves, cost is also key. What if you could create the same solar panels in a more cost-efficient way? That was part of the thinking behind another recent innovation in Singapore, where Maxeon Solar Technologies has created frameless, lightweight rooftop solar panels. These solar panels can be adhered directly to a roof without racking or mounting systems and allegedly perform just as well as standard solar panels.
The new Maxeon Air technology platform from Maxeon Solar Technologies
‘For close to 50 years, the solar power industry has almost exclusively used glass superstrate panel construction,’ said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon Solar Technologies. ‘As solar panels have increased in size, and the cost of solar cells has been dramatically reduced, the cost of transporting, installing and mounting large glass panels has become a relatively larger portion of total system cost. With Maxeon Air technology, we can now develop products that reduce these costs while opening up completely new market opportunities such as low-load commercial rooftops.’
The idea is to use these peel-and-stick designs on low-load roofs that cannot support the weight of conventional solar systems; and they will be rolled out in 2022. Time will tell whether the innovations in Swansea and Singapore have a bearing on companies’ solar systems, but they provide more evidence of the ingenuity that is making solar power cheaper and more efficient.
In the latest blog in our SCI Mid-Career group series, Dr Jessica Gould, Applications Team Leader of Energy Technologies at Croda International, speaks about finding time for career development and the importance of taking on responsibilities outside her normal job role.
Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I started off my chemistry career with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Liverpool, during which I spent a year working in the chemical industry at Cognis Ltd. Following my undergraduate degree, I began a PhD at the University of Nottingham that looked at developing novel coordination polymers for hydrogen storage as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Hydrogen, Fuels Cells and their Applications.
After completing my PhD, I started work at Croda in 2013. I have predominantly worked as a research scientist in the UK Synthesis team, specialising in acrylic polymerisation. However, in early 2020 I changed roles to work as the Team Leader of our Energy Technologies Applications team. This area focuses on developing additives for the renewable energy sector, looking at electric vehicles, EV fluids, wind turbines and battery additives.
What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Compared to early career development, where the focus is on learning the key skills required for your job, at a mid-career stage other skills such as networking become more important. I do this by attending events both inside and outside my workplace. I also use various online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and LinkedIn to maintain and foster relationships within my network.
I also think that taking on responsibilities from outside your normal job role is important in managing your career at the mid-stage level. This allows you to continue to learn new skills even if you feel you are well settled in your main role. My manager helps me identify these opportunities and manage them within my current job role. My organisation also provides training courses that allow me to further develop these skills.
What challenges are there around mid-career support?
From my perspective, the challenge around mid-career support is finding time within your existing schedule for career development. People can often feel like they’ve stagnated if it takes a long time to progress or if they see limited job opportunities above them. Training, courses, networks and other experiences can help them learn and feel challenged. These provide an excellent way to maintain development at a mid-career level.
What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
Mentoring is an excellent way for people to feel supported in their career development. Expanding and continuing our mentoring scheme would be a great way for SCI to support its members.
Bit by bit, the green hydrogen revolution is coming to our shores. The news that a planning application has been filed for the UK’s largest electrolyser in Glasgow could be a boon for hydrogen evangelists, the local communities, and the political class.
The 20MW electrolyser will form part of the green hydrogen facility on the outskirts of Glasgow near Whitelee, the UK’s largest wind farm. The proposed project would produce up to 8 tonnes of green hydrogen each day – the equivalent of 550 return bus trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
If approved, the scheme would be delivered by ScottishPower, BOC, and ITM Power as part of the Green Hydrogen for Scotland Partnership. BOC would operate the facility using solar and wind power produced by Scottish Power and ITM Power would provide the all-important 20 MW electrolyser. Renewable energy would power the electrolyser, which would split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen produced by this process could then be used in various applications including transport.
Fundamentally, the people who will benefit most are the people of Glasgow, with the project aiming to provide carbon-free transport and clean air for people across the city area, while satisfying some industrial hydrogen demand. And we can all rest easy now that we know politicians will be pleased about it too, for the project coincides nicely with the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Glasgow later this year.
The new facility will be based beside a plentiful renewable energy source, Whiteless wind farm in Eaglesham Moor. | Editorial credit: Maritxu / Shutterstock.com
If all goes swimmingly, the facility will supply hydrogen for the commercial market by 2023. “Whitelee keeps breaking barriers, first the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, and soon to be home to the UK’s largest electrolyser,” says Barry Carruthers, ScottishPower’s Hydrogen Director. “The site has played a vital role in helping the UK to decarbonise and we look forward to delivering another vital form of zero carbon energy generation at the site to help Glasgow and Scotland achieve their net zero goals.”
Tumbling renewable prices
This exciting news follows on the back of some bold green hydrogen claims made in a recent Bloomberg New Energy Foundation (NEF) report: the 1H 2021 Hydrogen Levelised Cost Update. According to Martin Tengler, BloombergNEF’s Lead Hydrogen Analyst, the report authors believe the cost of renewable hydrogen could fall 85% by 2050, 17% lower than they had previously predicted. This, he says, is due to falling renewables prices.
It is becoming cheaper all the time to produce solar and wind power, which is good news for those producing green hydrogen.
Tengler also says that renewable hydrogen should be cheaper than blue hydrogen (when natural gas is split into hydrogen and CO2 via processes such as steam methane reforming) in many countries by 2030. Furthermore, Bloomberg NEF predicts that green hydrogen will be cheaper to process than natural gas in many countries by 2050.
With the prices of solar and wind power constantly tumbling, it would be no surprise to see the authors of these reports revising their projections even further in the coming years. In the mean-time, we welcome the green shoots peeking through outside Glasgow.
In this new series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.
In our latest interview, we hear from David Freeman, Research & Technology Director for Croda’s Energy Technologies business.
Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
After a PhD in organic chemistry, I started my career with ICI Paints in Slough in 1998, working in a product development role. Within a couple of years, I moved to another ICI business, Uniqema, and had various technical roles around the chemical synthesis or process development of new materials.
These early roles – and the people I worked with during this time – had a big impact on me in terms of ways of working and how to deal with people. I subsequently joined Croda in 2006 and have since had further technical roles – initially around the technical management of Synthesis programmes in Croda, then technical management of Applications programmes, and finally on to my current role of R&T Director for Croda’s Energy Technologies business.
This last transition was probably the most interesting and challenging as it forced me to think much more strategically about the “what” rather than the “how” and what leadership versus management was all about. I see this area as being hugely important to the Mid-Career group.
What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Development remains really important to me from a personal perspective. I have always driven my own development, but been well supported by the organisations I’ve worked for: both by technical management teams and HR teams. At the mid-careers stage, there are lots of important things to think about but I consider the following to be key:
What challenges are there around mid-career support?
I feel very fortunate to have worked for organisations where development is extremely important – support is always on hand when I need it. The key challenge is a personal one and it’s about making enough time to focus on the right development areas. We are all busy but if we want to develop ourselves enough, then we will find that time!
When you live in a cold country, you think of hot days as a blessing. Air conditioning units are for those in far-away places – humid countries where the baked earth smell rises to meet you when you step off the plane.
But cooling comes at a cost. According to the UN Environment Programme, it accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us are visual learners; so, the sheer cost of cooling really hit me when I stared up at an apartment building in Hong Kong with hundreds of air conditioning units perched above the windows like birds.
And it isn’t just the Hong Kongers feeling the heat. The cooling industry as a whole is under pressure to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency expects emissions from cooling to double by 2030 due to heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and the growing middle class. By 2050, it forecasts that space cooling will consume as much electricity as China and India do today.
Air conditioning units cling to a building
All of this was captured by the Cooling Suppliers: Who's Winning the Race to Net Zero report released by the Race to Zero campaign, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), Carbon Trust and other partners in the UN Environment Programme-hosted Cool Coalition.
This report's authors found that only five of the 54 cooling companies they assessed have committed to net-zero targets. The document outlines three areas that must be addressed on the Cooling Climate Pathway: super-efficient appliances, ultra-low global warming refrigerants, and the widespread adoption of passive cooling measures such as clever home design and urban planning.
So, while builders adjust window sizes, introduce trees for shading, and choose materials (such as terracotta cooling systems) thoughtfully to temper the sun’s gaze, others are availing of different methods.
For example, the COP26 (the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference) Champions Team has just released its Net Zero Cooling Action Plan that includes a Cool Calculator tool to help companies and governments run simple calculations to see where they could decarbonise their cooling systems. Similarly, the UK's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has launched a net-zero cooling product guide that showcases energy-efficient products run on natural refrigerants.
Green walls are one of many passive cooling approaches used to reduce our reliance on mechanical systems.
However, it’s clear that the softly-softly approach won’t suffice. The EIA has called on governments to do more to encourage organisations to adopt sustainable cooling, to make concrete policy commitments, and speed-up the phase-out of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons.
“The development and expansion of net-zero cooling is a critical part of our Race to Zero emissions,” said Nigel Topping, UK High Level Champion for COP26. “In addition to technological breakthroughs and ambitious legislation, we also need sustainable consumer purchasing to help deliver wholesale systems change.”
We all love the technological panacea – innovations that will cure all the climate ills we have inflicted on the world. But the solution will also involve stodgy government regulations and changing consumer habits, and a reliance on the continued fall in renewable power generation.
For those in traditionally cooler climes, it’s no longer someone else’s problem. It was a balmy 22°C in London this week and we’re not even in April yet. So, it’s certainly time to turn up the heat on the cooling industry.
What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.
Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.
Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.
Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.
To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.
For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.
It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.
A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.
“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.
And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.
Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.
Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.
Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”
So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.
Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R
A completely clean, renewable energy system that can be produced locally and that can easily power heat, energy storage and transportation, and travel — that's the future that promoters of a hydrogen economy envisage.
If it sounds a bit like rocket science, that's because it is. Hydrogen is what's used to fuel rockets — that’s how powerful it is. In fact, it’s three times more powerful as a fuel than gas or other fossil-based sources. And, after use, it’s frequently converted to drinking water for astronauts.
US President Joe Biden has highlighted the potential of hydrogen in his ambitious plans for economic and climate recovery and a number of recent reports have been encouraging about hydrogen’s breakthrough moment, including McKinsey and Company (Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy, 2020) and the International Energy Agency.
Hydrogen fuel cells provide a tantalising glimpse into our low-carbon future
The McKinsey report claims that, by 2030, the hydrogen sector could generate 700,000 jobs and $140bn in revenue, growing to 3.4 million jobs and $750bn by 2050. It also believes it could account for a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 36% reduction in NOx emissions, and supply 14% of US energy demand.
So how does it work?
Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell and produces electricity, water, and heat.
This is what gets supporters so excited. In theory, hydrogen is a limitless, incredibly powerful fuel source with no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.
So what's the problem?
Right now, there are actually a few problems. The process relies on electrolysis and steam reforming, which are extremely expensive. The IEA estimates that to produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would require 3,600TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.
Moreover, almost 95% of hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels such as methane, natural gas, or coal (this is called "grey hydrogen"). Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. In addition, its low density makes it difficult to store and transport — it must be under high pressure at all times. It’s also well-known for being highly flammable — its use as a fuel has come a long way since the Hindenburg Disaster but the association still makes many people nervous.
A Hydrogen refuelling station Hafencity in Hamburg, Germany. Infrastructure issues must be addressed if we are to see more hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on our roads. | Image credit: fritschk / Shutterstock.com
So there are quite a few problems. What’s the good news?
In the last few years, we've seen how rapidly investment, innovation, and infrastructure policy can completely transform individual renewable energy industries. For example, the IEA analysis believes the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production could reduce the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity 30% by 2030.
Some of the issues around expense could be resolved by mass manufacture of fuel cells, refuelling equipment, and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water), made more likely by the increased interest and urgency. Those same driving forces could improve infrastructural issues such as refuelling stations for private and commercial vehicles, although this is likely to require coordination between various stakeholders, including national and local governments, industry, and investors.
The significant gains in renewable energy mean that “green” hydrogen, where renewable electricity powers the electrolysis process, is within sight.
The IEA report makes clear that international co-operation is “vital” to progress quickly and successfully with hydrogen energy. R&D requires support, as do first movers in mitigating risks. Standards need to be harmonised, good practice shared, and existing international infrastructure built on (especially existing gas infrastructure).
If hydrogen can be as efficient and powerful a contributor to a green global energy mix as its proponents believe, then it's better to invest sooner rather than later. If that investment can help power a post-Covid economic recovery, even better.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
Where once a country might have wanted to strike gold, now hitting upon a hydrocarbon find feels like a prize. But finding a hydrocarbon is only the beginning of the process and might not be worth it — as Lebanon is discovering.
First, a little background: for some time, Lebanon has been experiencing an energy crisis. Without resources of their own, the industry (which is government-owned) is reliant on foreign imports, which are expensive. Electricity in early 2020 was responsible for almost 50% of Lebanon's national debt. Major blackouts were common.
This contributed to a spiralling financial crisis, prompting public protests and riots as the middle class disappeared and even wealthier citizens struggled. Before Covid-19 and the devastating August 2020 blast in Beirut, Lebanon was in crisis.
The idea that the country might be able to switch from foreign oil to local gas was understandably appealing, especially when a major find was literally right there on the Lebanese shore. In 2019, a consortium of Israeli and US firms discovered more than 8tcm of natural gas in several offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, much of it in Lebanese waters.
A hydrocarbon find off the Beirut coast has failed to live up to its early promise.
But a find is only the beginning. With trust in Lebanese politicians low (the country ranks highly in most government corruption indexes) and a system that has repeatedly struggled to deliver a stable government, there are additional difficulties, not least a delay in the licensing rounds and a lack of trust — both internally, from citizens, and externally, from potential bidders. Meanwhile, Lebanon's neighbours race ahead to exploit their own finds, which ratchets up tensions.
Amid all that, a drilling exploration managed to go ahead last summer. But the joint venture between Total, ENI, and Novatek, which operated a well 30km offshore Beirut and drilled to approximately 1,500 metres, did not bring back the hoped-for results. The results confirmed the presence of a hydrocarbon system generally but did not encounter any reservoirs of the Tamar formation, which was the target.
Offshore exploration is a long process, with a lot of challenges and uncertainties and Ricardo Darré, Managing Director of Total E&P Liban, said afterwards, "Despite the negative result, this well has provided valuable data and learnings that will be integrated into our evaluation of the area". But the faith national politicians have long put in the hydrocarbon find, selling it as an answer to all Lebanon's problems, seems to have only worsened the domestic situation since.
And domestic politics is just the start of the problems…
Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own.
Israel, Egypt, and Jordan already have pipelines, which go to Italy. Turkey is working with Libya on a pipeline. Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own yet, although Russia has storage facilities and pipelines in the country and an eye on possible competition in the gas market.
None of that is an issue if the supply is intended for domestic use but that might not be profitable enough for investors and the Lebanese government would struggle to underwrite production on its own. Cyprus has encountered similar issues exploiting its share of the find.
Lebanon has also set an ambitious goal of having 30% of domestic energy mix sourced from renewable energy by 2030. The hoped-for gas was intended to support the renewable energy mix but, with the clock ticking, it might be that priorities shift to focusing on renewables. The Covid-19 pandemic will significantly impact the budgets of drilling companies and the push for renewable energy, both from governments and investors, seems to be growing as a way to boost economic recovery.
It may be that, after all the excitement around the hydrocarbon find, Lebanon starts to look elsewhere for its energy provision.
We are increasingly conscious of the need to recycle waste products, but it is never quite so easy as rinsing and sorting your waste into the appropriate bins, especially when it comes to plastic.
Despite our best intentions, only around 16% of plastic is recycled into new products — and, worse, plastics tend to be recycled into low quality materials because transformation into high-value chemicals requires substantial amounts of energy, meaning the choices are either downcycling or prohibitively difficult. The majority of single-use plastics end up in landfills or abandoned in the environment.
This is a particular problem when it comes to polyolefins such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which use cheap and readily available raw materials. Approximately 380 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually around the world and it is estimated that, by 2050, that figure will be 1.1 billion tonnes. Currently, 57% of this total are polyolefins.
Why are polyolefins an issue? The strong sp3 carbon–carbon bonds (essentially long, straight chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make them useful as a material also make them particularly difficult to degrade and reuse without intensive, high energy procedures or strong chemicals. More than most plastics, downcycling or landfill disposal tend to be the main end-of-life options for polyolefins.
Polyethylene is used to make plastic bags and packaging.
Now, however, a team of scientists from MIT, led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, believe they may have made a significant step towards solving this problem.
Previous research has demonstrated that noble metals, such as zirconium, platinum, and ruthenium can help split apart short, simple hydrocarbon chains as well as more complicated, but plant-based lignin molecules, in processes with much lower temperatures and energy.
So the team looked at using the same approach for the long hydrocarbon chains in polyolefins, aiming to disintegrate the plastics into usable chemicals and natural gas. It worked.
First, they used ruthenium-carbon nanoparticles to convert more than 90% of the hydrocarbons into shorter compounds at 200 Celsius (previously, temperatures of 430–760 Celsius were required).
Next, they tested their new method on commercially available, more complex polyolefins without pre-treatment (an energy intensive requirement). Not only were the samples completely broken down into gaseous and liquid products, the end product could be selected by tuning the reaction, yielding either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and liquid alkanes (both highly desirable) as preferred.
Polypropylene is used in bottle caps, houseware, and other packaging and consumer products.
The researchers believe that an industrial scale use of their method could eventually help reduce the volume of post-consumer waste in landfills by recycling plastics to desirable, highly valuable alkanes — but, of course, it's not that simple. The team says that more research into the effects of moisture and contaminants in the process is required, as well as product removal strategies to decrease the formation of light alkanes which will be critical for the industrialisation of this reaction.
However, they believe the path they're on could lead to affordable upcycling technology that would better integrate polyolefins into the global economy and incentivise the removal of waste plastics from landfill and the environment.
More about the study can be read here: