These Four Cutting-Edge Materials Are Shaping the Future of Renewables

Renewable energy materials are one of the hottest areas of scientific research today. We looked at four advanced materials that are supporting the future of distributed power and helping businesses meet the growing demand for clean energy.

Carbon Fibre Composites

GE uses composite materials in several domains, including ceramic matrix composites that can withstand temperatures up to 2400°F and are used in jet engines and gas turbines.

On the cooler side, polymer matrix composites are made with glass or carbon fibre and are used in wind turbines. These composites are light and durable, and therefore ideal for making giant rotor blades. They don’t rust or wear down the way metals do, so they can endure harsh environments for longer.

Wind blades are traditionally manufactured using glass fibre composites, but GE researchers are developing ways to bring carbon fibre composites into the design as well.

Carbon fibre composites are more expensive than their glass equivalents, but they are also lighter and more stiff, which would enable the creation of longer blades. “The longer the blade, the more wind you capture, and that’s the name of the game,” explains Shridhar Nath, Technology Lead in Composites at GE Global Research.

GE is developing designs and techniques that combine the two types of composites to capture more wind energy while also keeping costs down, says Nath. “We are pushing the envelope to start bringing carbon and hybrid glass-carbon composites into the mix.”

Lithium Hydroxide

Lithium-ion batteries are used in smart phones, power tools, and electric vehicles ranging from automobiles to heavy-duty mining equipment. It’s the leading battery technology on the market, but it could still be improved.

In June, Avalon Advanced Materials in Ontario announced that it had refined a high-purity lithium hydroxide product. According to CEO Don Bubar, purity is essential in creating better lithium batteries.

“The Holy Grail is maximizing the energy density,” Bubar explains. “That means being able to store the maximum amount of power in a small battery space, so the battery fits into different appliances or vehicles easily, and to be able to recharge it quickly.”

As lithium hydroxide becomes more pure, companies will develop better, longer lasting cells.

Perovskite Solar Cells

You may not have heard of the mineral perovskite, but it has been turning a lot of heads in the scientific community over the past five years.

At Sargent Group, a University of Toronto-affiliated research institute, researchers have created a solar energy harvesting material derived from perovskite that can achieve 20 per cent efficiency. That’s not as good as the silicon-based solar cells on the market today, which have 25 per cent efficiency, but perovskite solar cells could one day become the leading technology.

“They are almost perfectly built for solar energy processing,” says Dr. Alex Ip, Director of Research and Partnerships at Sargent Group. Perovskites are easier to work with because they self-assemble at room temperature, compared to the high temperature and pressure required for conventional semiconductors.

“There is a lot of potential for it because the performance is so high,” Ip adds. “A lot of the research is now focusing on how we can make sure they’re stable and how can we tune them to the absorption that we want.”

Nano-Structured Catalysts

Also at Sargent Group, researchers are experimenting with nano-structured catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into other carbon-based molecules like ethanol and ethylene, which have promising applications in home energy storage.

The challenge is that electricity from renewable sources is intermittent. “You need some way of storing that energy to use it when you want,” says Dr. Ip. “Once you have energy in chemical form, it doesn’t discharge. It’s ready and there to convert when you need it.”

A home powered by its own solar roof could store its excess energy as ethanol and save it for times when there isn’t as much sun, such as in winter. The CO2 used in the process would come directly from the air, and Dr. Ip says there is a lot of research going into figuring out the best way to do that.

The market demand for these materials is high and predicted to increase. As pressure on manufacturers to meet market expectations rises, researchers will continue to refine the advanced materials we need to realize our green energy future.

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