Category Archives: Chemical

Materials science solutions for zero carbon energy

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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

Making plastic waste history with cold plasma

Plastic wastes are a global problem. If you’ve been following the series of environmental horror stories in the media this year you know exactly what I mean. It’s bunk.

Even undiscovered species living in the deepest parts of the ocean are contaminated with plastic. Because humans bioaccumulate plastic from the environment, especially animals we eat from the sea like fish, we are sadly far from safe in this rather disturbing cycle.

At the time of writing there is no safe threshold for consuming plastics and research on whether eating plastic in certain quantities has ill health effects is ongoing. Time will tell. But in the meantime here’s an idea that may interest you:

We could prevent the majority if not all (optimistic here) waste plastics from entering the land and sea by using them as a resource.

How? One of the answers may lie in the ever so humble ‘cold plasma’.

Now before you turn your nose up and decide ‘that’s way too gross for me to handle right now’. I’m not talking about blood plasma. I’m referring to the fourth state of matter that we humans call plasma. Most of the matter in the universe is in fact plasma. I will save this epic tale for another time, but I encourage you to read about plasma here.

Ok, to put it simply, physicists define plasma as an ‘ionised gas’. But wait…I thought it was something different? It is, because in plasma electrons break free from their atoms and become highly energised. And once they do they are capable of amazing things like (wait for it) breaking down plastics into things that people use, which goes a step beyond ‘recycling’.

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