Imperial College London

How materials science can be harnessed to reach net-zero CO2 emissions targets

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Man turning a carbon dioxide knob to reduce emissions. CO2 reduction or removal concept. Composite image between a hand photography and a 3D background.

Imperial materials scientists have contributed to two Henry Royce Institute-led roadmaps detailing how to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In May 2019 the UK Government became the first global economy to set a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050, upgrading the previous target of delivering an 80 per cent cut in emissions. The move followed the publication of the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) report ‘Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’.

These important materials roadmaps demonstrate, in detail, how cutting-edge materials science and engineering will play a key role this major energy transition. Baroness Brown of Cambridge, Julia King Henry Royce Institute Chair

In response, the Henry Royce Institute (Royce) for advanced materials, in collaboration with the Institute of Physics (IOP), has convened the academic and industrial materials research communities to explore the increasingly critical role of novel materials and processes to deliver affordable, reliable and above all, green energy.

The output is a series of detailed technology roadmaps that set out how UK materials science can contribute to the UK’s low-carbon energy transition.

The roadmaps, two of which were led by Imperial academics, form the basis for bringing scientific research communities, industry and government together to address immediate and long-term requirements for the development of a suite of energy materials to replace fossil fuel-based energy technologies.

Imperial input

Solar energy

Dr Robert Hoye, from the Department of Materials at Imperial, led the ‘materials for photovoltaic systems’ roadmap, which pertains to solar energy such as traditional solar panels and new materials like metal-halide perovskites and printable inks that aim to make solar energy conversion more efficient and flexible.

To ensure national energy security, enabling UK-based PV manufacturing is critical Dr Robert Hoye Department of Materials

Dr Hoye said: “Photovoltaic (PV) energy generation has the potential to reach 50 per cent of the UK’s total generation capacity by 2030, and provides a significant opportunity for addressing the UK’s net-zero goals for energy generation. To ensure national energy security, enabling UK-based PV manufacturing is critical. 

“The UK has a world-leading position in PV innovation, where research in material science plays a significant role, however there is a need for translation of such innovations into products. Such innovation capability could be addressed through the development of a new PhD trained talent pool to build our skills base.

“In addition, the establishment of a centre for PV materials and device characterisation, as well as for the rapid prototyping of new products, could see the UK fill the gap between lab-based research and manufacturing of new PV products.”

Hydrogen

If we could use green hydrogen instead, we would remove this colossal source of emissions Dr Ifan E. L. Stephens Department of Materials

Dr Ifan E. L. Stephens, also from the Department of Materials at Imperial, led the ‘materials for low-carbon methods for generation of hydrogen and other related energy carriers and chemical feedstocks’ roadmap, which pertains to using electricity generated by wind power to split water, producing hydrogen fuels that release no greenhouse gases when used, for example, to power vehicles.

In this way, energy can be stored from the UK’s huge offshore wind resource.

Dr Stephens said: “Large scale electrolytic hydrogen production by splitting water would allow us to store the surplus of energy that we could potentially harvest from the UK’s huge offshore wind resource. Hydrogen could allow us to decarbonise the areas that are hardest to decarbonise such as heating, steelmaking and the chemical industry. For instance, the combined production of ammonia, ethylene and methanol result in CO2 emissions is equivalent to the global aviation industry, because they use fossil fuels as an input. If we could use green hydrogen instead, we would remove this colossal source of emissions.

The UK already has leading companies in the production of materials for electrolysers and fuel cells, but we identified that we need greater integration between academia and industry to capitalise on our strengths in materials for hydrogen and related chemicals. Dr Ifan E. L. Stephens Department of Materials

“Such progress is contingent on longer lasting, more efficient catalysts, electrode materials and electrolytes that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Similarly, decarbonising the synthesis of chemical feedstocks, either through using green hydrogen in existing processes or through the direct electrolytic reduction of nitrogen or CO2, also requires improved catalysis. Hence, regardless of whether you are using hydrogen as energy vector or producing other related chemicals, materials are key.

“The UK already has leading companies in the production of materials for electrolysers and fuel cells, but we identified that we need greater integration between academia and industry to capitalise on our strengths in materials for hydrogen and related chemicals. We particularly need improved facilities and routes for academic laboratories to test new materials under industrially relevant conditions.

“Should the UK capitalise on our potential, then we could become a huge exporter of hydrogen related technology, spearheading the global move to a net-zero emissions society.”

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Henry Royce Institute Chair, Baroness Brown of Cambridge (Julia King) said: “These important materials roadmaps demonstrate, in detail, how cutting-edge materials science and engineering will play a key role this major energy transition. Novel materials will be essential to deliver the disruptive technologies that will bring about the energy-efficient applications and processes we urgently need in order to achieve our 2050 net-zero goal.”

Royce CEO, Professor David Knowles said: “The UK has a world-leading fundamental research base in materials science and it is clear the community is wholeheartedly committed to coming together to advance progress across a range of sustainable energy systems and technologies, made possible by the utilisation of next generation materials.”

This news story was adapted from a press release by the Henry Royce Institute.

See the press release of this article

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Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications and Public Affairs

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415
Email: caroline.brogan@imperial.ac.uk

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Energy, REF, Research, Industry, Climate-change, Strategy-collaboration, Global-challenges-Natural-world, Global-challenges-Engineering, Environment, Materials
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