Category Archives: Let’s get sustainable

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

Moving towards a circular economy

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

Good beekeeping practices keep honeybees healthy

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

Recognising biodiversity globally

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

A species that destroys biodiversity destroys itself

“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

Tools for making cities better prepared for disasters

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

How to start interacting with the SDGs

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

Leaving no one behind for clean water and sanitation

How do you ensure that no one is left behind in making clean water and sanitation available to all? The water cycle is not a bad place to start and it can be taken both literally and metaphorically. Water is an integral part of life, and we interact with it often, including the infrastructure that delivers water to the places we live in.

To come to grips with how water exists on this planet no one part of the water cycle can be studied in complete isolation from the other. There are simply too many factors involved that affect water such as climate, pollution, water usage, wastewater treatment, water catchments and so forth.

This graphic illustrates how research in different areas of water are important to the whole picture of the water system which involves human activities like industry and policy as much as ‘natural’ or non-anthropogenic ones. It provides a holistic representation of some of the key research areas at Newcastle University in water, particularly from the School of Engineering.

We think this diagram provides a useful metaphor for how water research is integrated. For example, what is done for climate impacts and adaptation is directly applicable to water resources management, including managing flood risks. Continue reading Leaving no one behind for clean water and sanitation

Achieving water security for all

Water security is a major challenge for countries throughout the world, especially urban and rural communities in developing countries. Water related disease kills more than 3.4 million people every year, making it the leading cause of death.

While water is a human right according to the United Nations, for everyone to have access to safe, potable drinking water and adequate sanitation requires significant advancement in water infrastructure, governance and education.

To provide the 2.1 billion people on the planet who lack readily available drinking water at home requires more than technological innovation, it demands collaborations that may appear ambitious in scope, but nevertheless are necessary for resolving deep rooted problems of water security.

The GCRF Water Security Hub led by Newcastle University makes possible the collaborations needed to address water security in the developing world in a holistic way. I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the key researchers in the Hub from Newcastle in engineering and the social sciences.

In Part 2 of this episode of the Science Perspective podcast they explain the importance of water security, and how the Hub is working with multiple stakeholders to achieve SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

Download

You can also catch up on Part 1.

 

Four key solutions to sustainable development 2019 & beyond

Looking to the near future — 2019 — there are four topics, four ideas I wish to highlight that could revolutionise not only how we tackle climate change, but many other global challenges the world is facing for sustainable development.

  • Revolutionise the energy system
  • Make circular economy a reality
  • Clean water and sanitation infrastructure for all
  • Spread electric vehicles

Revolutionise energy

Energy? On this planet it all begins with the sun really.

It’s a simple yet powerful (no pun intended) scientific fact that energy underlies everything. If we didn’t have it we wouldn’t exist and without the concept our lives would be radically different from what they are today. But let’s keep it to things like electricity and heat for the moment.

We need to generate more of them and use what we have more wisely, but the energy dense yet carbon heavy materials we’ve relied on since prior to the industrial revolution are a no go for the future. Embarrassingly, they’re on the rise despite progress made in renewables and decarbonisation.

Beyond emissions there were already in place good reasons NOT to burn fossil fuels. Remember acid rain? How about air pollution? Which cities finally seem to be paying attention to again because people are dropping like flies because of air contamination. Did you know that communities downwind of coal fired power stations are more likely to have children with birth defects? How about the impacts coal has on landscapes, water and air, all resources we cannot live without?

Continue reading Four key solutions to sustainable development 2019 & beyond