A team of researchers from Imperial College London has published a roadmap for making the materials that we use in everyday life more sustainable, highlighting the outstanding challenges and the pathways towards solving them.
Materials science, a highly interdisciplinary field of chemical engineering, covers the design, discovery and application of new materials. Increasingly, researchers have been focusing on ways to create more sustainable material alternatives using natural raw materials, while making sure not to deplete important resources.
Critical materials represent a class of substances that make up central components of sustainable energy systems. Examples include the permanent magnets used in wind turbines, which are based on rare earth metals such as dysprosium, neodymium and praseodymium; lithium and cobalt in lithium-ion batteries; platinum in fuel cells and electrolysers; and silicon in solar cells. The new roadmap assesses how we can produce important substances like these critical materials for a more sustainable future.
‘I am very excited to see this sustainable materials roadmap published,’ said Professor Magda Titirici, the lead author on the paper. ‘It encompasses significant contributions from the scientific community working in this important research area across various themes from raw sustainable precursors to natural inspiration in making materials, different classes of materials, their applications, sustainability assessment and recycling.’
Lithium-ion batteries currently dominate the market but have significant environmental impacts due to their dependence on graphite and transition metal oxides. The supply of naturally occurring graphite is limited, and while synthetic graphite offers a potential alternative, it’s expensive to produce and is derived from petroleum, a fossil fuel. to make matters worse, the transition oxides used to make the batteries’ cathode contain cobalt, which is an endangered resource dependent on mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has exacerbated civil conflict in the region.
Because future energy systems will require greater demand for the storage of energy, batteries are sure to be a critical area of research in the future. ‘Emerging energy-storage technologies have the potential to reach full-spectrum sustainability alongside technological advancements by learning from the shortcomings of current lithium-ion batteries,’ said research fellow Heather Au.
‘Critical examination of the entire battery life cycle will help to achieve environmental balance and security by targeting high-performance materials based on abundant and non-geopolitically compromised elements, while also keeping a circular economy mindset,’ added research associate Maria Crespo. ‘While significant advances have been made in alternative battery chemistries, there is still great scope in developing innovations in greener materials synthesis, less energy-intensive cell manufacturing, improving battery lifetime and safety, and designing for end-of-life.’
‘We hope to aid the development of the wider sustainable materials research community, providing a guide for academia, industry, government and funding agencies in this critically important and rapidly developing research space which is key to future sustainability,’ Titirici concluded.
The roadmap has been published on JPhys Materials.