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Environment and energy

Net-zero carbon target in UK will require national approach to materials science, says report

08 Oct 2020
solar and wind farm
Going green: the new roadmaps cover materials for photovoltaic systems, low-carbon generation of hydrogen, thermoelectric energy conversion, caloric energy conversion and low-loss electronics (Courtesy: Shutterstock/hrui)

A national co-ordinated approach to material science in the UK is needed to meet the country’s 2050 net-zero carbon targets. That is according to the Henry Royce Institute, which has released five roadmaps detailing how materials science and engineering can contribute to this energy transition.

Funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, the Henry Royce Institute is the UK’s national centre for advanced materials research and innovation. It is a partnership between six UK universities as well as the National Nuclear Laboratory and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

The new roadmaps are the result of a series of workshops held earlier this year, in which more than 200 material scientists were brought together by the Henry Royce Institute and the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World. They explored the role of materials in meeting the UK’s target of bringing all greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050, which the UK passed into law last year.

The roadmaps cover materials for photovoltaic systems, low-carbon generation of hydrogen, thermoelectric energy conversion, caloric energy conversion and low-loss electronics. According to the Henry Royce Institute, in each area the UK will have to bring together the research community, industry and government to identify immediate and long-term requirements for the development of energy materials to replace fossil-fuel technologies.

“These important materials roadmaps demonstrate, in detail, how cutting-edge materials science and engineering will play a key role this major energy transition,” says Julia King, chair of the Henry Royce Institute and a former chief executive of the IOP. “Novel materials will be essential to deliver the disruptive technologies that will bring about the energy-efficient applications and processes we urgently need.”

Showing potential

Oliver Fenwick, a material scientist at Queen Mary University of London who led the thermoelectric energy conversion theme, says that the development of new or improved materials underpins most emerging technologies. “The transition to net-zero emissions presents significant opportunities for new materials, and this is particularly the case for thermoelectric technology,” he says. “The challenge is significant, but the opportunity for the UK in this sector is huge, with 17% of our CO2 emissions coming from space heating and cooling.”

The Henry Royce Institute calls for new national facilities to test technologies and ease their transfer from laboratories to prototypes. It also says the UK government must invest in the material-science skills base and encourage or legislate the use of low-carbon technology.

King adds that many of these next generation materials are already showing great potential. “Our challenge is to deploy them at scale,” she says. “We now need to have a meaningful dialogue with our government partners to agree on what is technically feasible and economically viable.”

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