Materials science and engineering is important for a vast number of reasons as nearly everything we interact with from clothing to packaging consists of manufactured materials, whether they are textile, paper, plastic, wood, metal, none of these, or all of the above.
Materials are also essential to how we generate and store energy. One of the determining factors in the race to net-zero carbon emissions in response to climate action is whether we will obtain or create the right energy materials for storing renewables. Cheap materials with high potential for batteries that are efficient, long lasting and sustainable in many ways is the holy grail of material science and engineering for power systems. There is also a range of innovations available to get us there. But it’s not only about batteries: think fuel cells.
If the net zero future is at least partially hydrogen based, we’re going to need fuel cells and possibly lots of them. While fuel cells depend mainly on noble metals like platinum and gold, preferably they need to use less of these materials or replace them with cheaper ones. One of the joys of materials research is that there’s lots of space for optimism, breakthroughs are happening (some are biological), but whether they are happening fast enough is up for debate.
What we do know is that the energy revolution is going to take more than a solar panel, a wind turbine and a lithium battery. While driven down in price lithium is a finite resource so we need to look to other materials for our energy storage needs. While lithium has been a game changer for powering portable electronics, it is doubtful whether it alone will be able to satisfy the demand of our larger energy storage needs, which means we need alternatives.
This article in Network Magazine goes into a bit more depth about what energy materials could do for the future of the UK’s energy network, recognising the importance of material science and engineering to a zero carbon future. Enjoy.
How materials science will underpin the future energy network
An integrated energy system has large potential to revolutionise our energy economy. If the UK is to achieve Net Zero by 2050, it requires little less than transformation of our current energy system in becoming smarter, cleaner, affordable and low-carbon. In light of the recent power cut in England and Wales, integration could also help make the energy system more resilient to faults and prevent failures.
In the final podcast of the Science Perspective series from #awriterinthelab, we speak with researchers in key areas of the integrated energy revolution from electrical, cyber security and transport engineers, to material scientists and industry practitioners innovating the future of solar PV, EVs, energy storage and hydrogen for an integrated energy system. Enjoy.
Digital twin technology means a lot for flood preparedness, drainage and wastewater management and a host of other things in the water sector and beyond. It also has a lot to do with running business differently as the knowledge obtained from digital twins, including how to aggregate and visualise data, has large potential to shape the future of decision-making and data.
For those unaware, digital twin is a bit of buzzword that is catching on in academic, industry and policy worlds that refers to a live real time digital counterpart of physical systems we encounter in the real world. It’s closely related to what people in academia and industry also call ‘cyber-physical’ (more about this in our podcast on ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’). Continue reading Digital twins ‘the final frontier’
What we waste has the potential to aid or severely harm us. As a species, we have the tendency to waste material resources at a scale that is unprecedented, especially plastics.
Many countries (mostly richer ones), live in a culture of excess or so called ‘throwaway culture’. The fashion industry as a whole doesn’t seem to even attempt to acknowledge this, probably not unlike the injustice of sweatshop labour in factories that produce their clothing. Similar to transparency in the garment industry, we need transparency on waste too.
But there are of course exceptions and likely many more are growing in response to planetary pressures. One of them is Sea Pigs based in Newcastle who make footwear designed to be recycled. I actually ran into their CEO once on Northumberland Street while giving a public survey on climate change, so thought it worth mentioning them.
Textiles as I learned at the Ending Waste event at Newcastle Helix, have a high carbon footprint, one that is easily ignored by consumers (I have many cloth bags too, just remember to use them for shopping at least 300 times). To really value materials, we need to move to something better – use less and do more with what we have.
A circular economy begins and ends with resource instead of waste, in fact, it doesn’t really end at all. It valorises products derived from natural resources that we otherwise throw away, and which inevitably clog the ecological systems we depend upon for survival. Cities throughout the world are doing more to embrace or at least help along mainly linear modes of material disposal and recycling, shaping them into circular ones. Continue reading Moving towards a circular economy
Professor Giles Budge & Brett Cherry
There are between 25,000 to 30,000 bee species living today that affect 35% of global agricultural land. Therefore, we need an international understanding of honeybee health, both in terms of the pathogens and environmental factors that affect them, and what beekeepers can do to improve the health and ecological status of bees.
Bees are threatened by a range of factors: from diseases to pesticides. Being an especially sensitive species of insect, it is no surprise that climate change also affects bees. The primary culprits threatening bee survival include habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and pathogens.
Previous research found that local species are more likely to survive than non-local ones in Europe. In South Africa, the location of the colony strongly influenced the prevalence of autumn mites and viruses.
Research on beekeeper education and disease control published in Plos One, identified key risk factors that lead to the death of honeybee colonies. It was the first surveillance programme done on randomly selected participants and used standardised methods to monitor the health of the honeybee colony, pests, diseases and management practices across 17 European countries from 2012-14.
While there is variation in colony losses across EU member states, and between years of the study, the role of beekeepers in protecting honeybee colonies appears indispensable. Continue reading Good beekeeping practices keep honeybees healthy
I knew little about subsea engineering until I met Team Tao – a team of engineers from Soil Machine Dynamics and Newcastle University. Turns out, we know very little about the things below water when it comes to the deep sea, and there is much more to explore. But there’s a catch…We don’t really have the technology to do it in a very efficient way…yet.
I had the pleasure of visiting Team Tao at Tyne Subsea in Wallsend, which operates one of the largest hyperbaric chambers in the world. Basically, it’s a really cool massive bit of kit capable of testing things at extremely high pressures – simulating water depths of 15,000m!
I had the privilege of interviewing Dr HK Chang who showed me around the facility and introduced me to prototypes of the subsea drones Team Tao developed for the Ocean Discovery X Prize. I also spoke with Jeff Neasham who has developed a unique type of sonar that doesn’t harm marine life, which they employed for their novel subsea drone technology. Continue reading Team Tao’s subsea drones make a big splash
This week marks two special days for environmental sustainability: International Day for Biological Diversity and World Bee Day. While symbolic in scope, the importance of having days dedicated to thought, speech and action for protecting and increasing biodiversity and bees on this planet deserves recognition.
In this short post I want to flag up a video produced at Newcastle University with two brilliant researchers in biology and ecology: Dr Louise Mair and Dr Rike Bolam. They answer a series of questions from young people about animals and biodiversity more generally.
Continue reading Recognising biodiversity globally
“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” Robert Watson, Chair of the IPBES
There is dire need to prevent the planet’s numerous flora and fauna from going extinct, including the many species that humans depend on for survival.
A recent report on the state of biodiversity from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) makes clear that nothing less than transformation must happen for humans continues to live on this planet much longer.
Known long before the advent of science, the fate of the human species interconnects with its neighbouring species on the tree of life.
Species’ future existence affects and in many ways determines our own. As humans, the most dominant species on Earth, we fancy ourselves as makers of our own destiny, but time to conserve our biotic lifeline is running out.
Plants provide the air we breathe and the nutrients we consume for survival. They capture and store the solar energy that our bodies cannot absorb directly. Insects in turn pollinate that plants that we eat. Similarly, the animals of the land and the sea that we use as a food source, if they were to come under threat, would place our own species in quite a precarious position. Continue reading A species that destroys biodiversity destroys itself
If cities are to overcome the numerous challenges they are currently facing, including disasters, then it requires an array of sustainable techniques, methods and approaches for managing them. Cities are robust, often resilient but also fragile in the wake of perplexing environmental problems, such as climate change.
To clarify things a bit – hazards themselves are not disasters until they harm or eliminate life. A large-scale asteroid impact is most certainly a hazard but it will not be a disaster unless it harms life or damages the processes that support it. Earthquakes and flood hazards may be potentially disastrous but only in reference to the living things they are at risk of destroying.
The good news about disasters is that while they are not always preventable, it is possible to reduce their impacts through human means. In this geological epoch, climate change will persist regardless of human intervention, but its future impacts remain an open question – and humans have a strong role to play.
The people involved are as, if not more important, than the technical and scientific tools employed. Now is the time for cities to move forward in using the many available tools for improving cities, some of which are created and demonstrated through publicly-funded research. Continue reading Tools for making cities better prepared for disasters
The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide numerous opportunities for science and engineering to make a wider impact globally upon society and the environment. Aligning them with publicly funded research is imperative to their success. Times Higher Education just released their Impact ranking for the SDGs. I am pleased to say that Newcastle University was ranked 23rd in the world for this ranking.
If you’re an academic researcher, and new to the SDGs, one of the things you should know about them is that they are interconnected – each goal relates to, influences and affects the other goals.
There will always be specific goals that an individual or organisation may focus on but this doesn’t mean the others aren’t relevant to your work; indeed the framework is broad enough to enable achieving targets for different goals together. For example, while you thought you were working on clean water and sanitation, you may not have realised that you’re also helping to achieve gender equality.
If you do research or other relevant work to goal 3 – Good Health and Well-Being, likely it will have implications for other goals such as goal 1 – No Poverty and goal 2 – Zero Hunger.
If your research is in energy, which pertains to goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy, then it will likely also be relevant to goal 13 – Climate Action and goal 14 – Life Below Water. Clean energy results in decreased greenhouse gas emissions for mitigating climate change, reducing ocean acidification, and energy affordability connects to goal 1 – No Poverty. Got it? Continue reading How to start interacting with the SDGs