Energy Materials Research

The START project focusses on several key areas of research challenges for Africa, energy materials and structural biology. Learn more about these below.

There are unique challenges to developing sustainable energy in Africa. Large swathes of the population live off-grid with little access to conventional energy sources. The degradation of energy devices in an environment of heat and dust, and the high initial capital costs of traditional energy production installations or storage systems causes problems for the wider dissemination of conventional energy services. Prof. Dave Billing from the University of Witwatersrand looks forward to developing their use of synchrotron techniques:

“Being able to access the unique techniques offered by a synchrotron like Diamond is a step change for us in skills development as well as an opportunity to compete with our science on a world stage.” 

Prof. Dave Billing, University of Witwatersrand

Research into new materials to aid the capture of energy through sunlight such as using photovoltaic materials and catalytic processes will potentially aid the promotion of innovative sources of energy that draw on readily accessible energy sources abundantly available in the local environment.

Photovoltaics at the University of Sheffield

A large batch of tiny perovskite solar cells being ‘spin-coated’ and heated on a hotplate inside a glove box ready for testing in Sheffield

The Electronic and Photonic Molecular Materials group at the University of Sheffield develops novel photovoltaic materials and processes to enable a new era of low-cost solar energy. Our work centres around the development of organic-inorganic metal-halide perovskites and related materials. These perovskites have shown the potential for low-temperature processed, high efficiency, printable and spray-coatable layers which could be the future for incredibly low-cost energy. Perovskites could also have applications for off-grid generation, connecting communities that currently don’t have access to consistent electricity.

As part of the START project, EPMM use our experience of synchrotron techniques (such as Grazing Incidence Wide-angle X-ray Scattering, GIWAXS) to collaborate on the analysis of structural formation and degradation of perovskite materials. High efficiency solar cells are possible at lab scale, but without careful design perovskites can degrade rapidly from a combination of common environmental factors like moisture and oxygen. By investigating the effect of these various factors we can understand degradation processes and design new material formulations and layers that are resistant to these impacts. Our work also looks at scalability of the layer formation processes and understanding how they form during spray-coating or evaporating. Together with expertise drawn from other Universities in the project, we can develop fundamental insights into the mechanisms at work when making or breaking perovskites, paving the way for commercialisation of these innovative materials.

Cardiff University: Computational studies of Cu-based Catalysts for CO2 Conversion to Methanol

Bent activated CO2 molecule adsorbed on two different Cu facets

Methanol (CH3OH) is an attractive target molecule for carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas pollutant and contributes to global warming. With these pressures putting strain on the earth’s resources, research is needed to understand how CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere.

Additionally, carbon dioxide is an abundant source of carbon. If CO2 can be converted into feedstock materials such as methanol, it represents a clean and essentially renewable source of methanol to produce a wide range of economically valuable products. As well as being a major industrial chemical product itself, methanol is used in the production of synthetic hydrocarbons, and could also be used as a stable hydrogen source for hydrogen fuel cells.

Researchers at Cardiff University’s Catalysis Institute are undertaking investigations into catalysts for methanol synthesis. Catalysts are substances or materials that alter the rate of a chemical reaction without it being consumed as part of the catalytic cycle. The investigators will use computational studies to better understand the role of the zinc oxide (ZnO) support material in commercial Cu/ZnO/Al2O3 catalysts by comparison with unsupported copper (Cu) catalysts.

The team’s work will ultimately support the design of novel catalysts to produce methanol that could become a key substance in creating renewable energy sources.