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Developing efficient mechanisms for energy storage to create a greener future

Rapid depletion of fossil fuels and the consequent increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions has led to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our time; the greenhouse effect. Finding effective ways of minimizing CO2 emissions has become a major focus for governments around the world, with the UK becoming the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law, requiring all greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to net zero by 2050. Industry and business globally are following suit in order to meet their legal and social responsibilities.

With energy supply (generating electricity from burning fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas) being one of the highest-emitting sectors, steep reductions in emissions could be achieved with increased use of renewable energy sources. However, renewable sources such as wind and solar only produce energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Their intermittent and fluctuating nature endangers the stability of the power grid, due to a mismatch between the time and location of energy production and the demand. Efficient mechanisms for energy storage are therefore essential to overcome this challenge and maintain the balance between supply and demand and thus consistent and reliable operation of the power distribution infrastructure.

Among all energy storage technologies developed or currently under development, production of solar fuels through electrocatalysis to produce hydrogen from water splitting and/or value added carbonaceous species from CO2, is a particularly attractive route due to its scalability for commercial applications. A major obstacle in the development of commercially feasible electrocatalytic processes for energy conversion and storage is the immature understanding of the mechanisms and activity associated with the complex catalytic reactions.

In November 2018, Dr Jie Zhang, School of Chemistry, Monash University and Professor Patrick Uwin, Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick were awarded Monash Warwick Alliance funding to develop and identify cost-effective, highly active, selective and stable catalysts.

Two years on, the Monash team has developed a range of new single atom and surface alloy electrocatalysts for electrochemical CO2 reduction (ECR) and the Warwick team has successfully built and implemented scanning electrochemical probe microscopy (SEPM), with dual-gas control (Ar and CO2), enabling wide applications of the Warwick-specialised SEPM platform to study various reactions pertaining to electrochemical energy systems. Significant strides have been made to expand the SEPM capability towards both “multi-scale” and in operando forms of analysis, both important technical advances that were needed to realise the major goals of the project. With considerable progress made in the agreed research areas, the next step for the researchers is to explore the feasibility for commercial applications through collaboration with industrial partners.

In addition to cutting edge research, the project has enhanced career trajectories of several early career researchers. Three Early Career Fellowships (a Discovery Early Career Research Award, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, and a Humboldt Fellowship) have been awarded to individuals conducting research that is a continuation or spin-off of the work they carried out as part of this collaboration. A PhD student who joined the project in its early stages is on track to graduate with one published paper and three further papers in preparation or submitted.

The Monash Warwick network of excellence initiated by this collaboration was further expanded through linking up with leading researchers at Stanford University, producing high-impact publications in Nature Materials and Nature.