School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

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How materials science will underpin the future energy network

The role of materials science in developing new network capacity

What are the materials that will serve as the backbone for electrical energy storage, renewable energy generation, gas and the grid itself in the future? How might they underpin the future of the energy network?

Writing in Network, four academics from Newcastle University and Durham University consider how we might take advantage of novel materials to achieve net carbon emissions.

A unique conference this summer took place at Newcastle University, organised by the North East Centre for Energy Materials (NECEM). It explored many novel energy materials that could transform our energy system. It also explored the ‘breakthrough' prospect of modelling the UK's energy network from atoms to system scale to see how different materials and components interact on the grid.

To decarbonise the energy network, two major technologies are in the spotlight:

  • renewable energy generation
  • energy storage

Both technologies use finite precious resources like lithium. Lithium is expensive at grid-scale and faces a stability problem. While it is not an ideal material for grid-scale energy storage, it is likely to be used in this capacity for the foreseeable future.

New energy materials could be the tipping point for system scale decarbonisation and energy security.

The biological turn in energy materials

The energy network could become increasingly biological. Biogas generation from anaerobic digestion plants and energy generated from the burning of biomass, possibly the oldest fuel in the world, are both examples of this.

We could also see solar devices that work similar to plants. They would generate solar fuel in the form of hydrogen. Bioelectrochemical fuel cells would use microbes, along with bio-based forms of carbon capture and storage systems. Buildings themselves can also generate energy, using biomaterials integrated into building fabrics.

A material revolution

The UK will need to produce 312 TWh of hydrogen and roll out 23 GW of battery storage by 2050 to meet the decarbonisation target (2°C scenario). The materials we use for energy storage need to be sustainable, cheap, flexible, high capacity and abundant.

To achieve net zero carbon emissions we need to go beyond batteries. We must take advantage of novel materials such as porous carbons and metal-organic framework materials for hydrogen storage.

Whatever materials we use in batteries for the grid, we will need to make them in larger quantities.

New energy materials have a major role to play in delivering a net-zero carbon future. This is from generation to distribution, storage and management of the energy system as a whole.

If the grid becomes more dependent on storage, we must learn about energy materials' degradation, resilience or vulnerability to failure.

2D materials

Quasi-two-dimensional materials are attractive for a range of energy harvesting and storage applications. Graphene is a single, atomically thin layer of graphite. It has so far received the most attention. Laboratory scale devices have been made from this material. Its few-layer analogues show great potential for the next generation of supercapacitors and batteries. A great advantage of graphene is that, being composed of pure carbon, the precursors are earth-abundant.

Read the full article in Network. Network is the sister publication of the highly successful Utility Week. It provides a much needed resource for engineers in the UK's gas, power and heat networks.

  • Newcastle University
    • Dr Elizabeth Gibson: Reader in Energy Materials, School of Natural and Environmental Sciences
    • Dr Mohamed Mamlouk: Senior Lecturer in Engineering, School of Engineering
    • Brett Cherry: Science Writer, Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering
  • Durham University
    • Dr Michael Hunt: Lecturer in Department of Physics
Graphene layers

published on: 13 October 2019