Sustainable Energy and Materials Science

Sustainable materials is not simply a buzzword. Our world is increasingly concerned about and researching how to protect our planet. Here at MatEdU, we have spent many years looking at how materials science is changing the world. Over the next two posts, we plan to look at how sustainable materials, then smart materials, are massively influencing and impacting that change.

Founded on the solid belief of transforming the future of materials technology, MatEdU has come a long way since its inception. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the national center and project envisioned a world where education, industry, and community come together to meet the evolving needs of the materials technology workforce. Headquartered at Edmonds College, MatEdU stands as a testament to the promising potential of sustainable clean energy and materials science, as well as many other related scientific and industry areas.

Sustainable clean energy, as we understand it, encapsulates an ecosystem that is committed to energy efficiency and environmental preservation. Materials science plays a pivotal role in realizing this vision by developing groundbreaking materials that can drive the clean energy revolution. Here are some ways in which materials science is shaping the sustainable energy landscape:

  • Solar Power: Materials scientists are innovating photovoltaic materials for solar panels that can enhance the conversion of sunlight into electricity, making solar energy a more feasible alternative to fossil fuels.
  • Wind Energy: Research is underway to create lightweight yet robust composites for wind turbines, leading to improved performance and reliability.
  • Fuel Cells: Scientists are discovering catalysts and electrocatalysts to be used in fuel cells, making them a more practical and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
  • Energy Storage: High-capacity batteries and other storage systems are being developed to optimize the storage and release of energy. Battery innovation alone is practically an industry unto itself.
  • Thermal Management and Energy Harvesting Systems: Advanced materials are aiding in the efficient temperature control and conversion of mechanical energy into electrical energy.

When it comes to sustainability, we are fans and supporters of a variety of high-impact organizations.

Let’s start with one in our backyard: Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth Abundant Materials (JCDREAM). Their mission is to accelerate the development of next-generation clean energy and transportation technologies in Washington state, but their research and reporting is useful in many ways across the USA.

We have written about them several times, but here are two:

JCDREAM recently completed two reports (produced by FP Analytics, with support from JCDREAM). Both of the reports mentioned here are incredibly detailed and, well, dense. We scratch the surface and encourage you to head to these two report links.

The first report, Securing Critical Minerals for Washington State, highlights the crucial role of certain minerals in key industries. These include:

  • Transportation
  • Renewable energy
  • Aerospace and defense
  • Battery manufacturing (in a section on Lithium-Ion Batteries)

These sectors rely on minerals such as cobalt, graphite, lithium, nickel, platinum, iridium, and rare earth elements. The report emphasizes the importance of risk awareness and supply chain diversification in these industries. It also highlights the importance of securing our supply chain with reshoring domestic production or by “friendshoring” supplies from allied countries.

The second report, Critical Minerals Considerations For a Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub, shows how Hydrogen is set for a growth spurt, driven by:

  • Supportive policies: U.S. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act
  • Rising energy security concerns
  • The urgency to reduce emissions from hard-to-abate sectors

Despite low electricity rates, hydrogen production in Washington State isn’t yet cost-competitive. However, with additional support:

  • Green hydrogen production could accelerate
  • The Pacific Northwest could become a hub of energy innovation
  • Zero-carbon fuels could be provided for sectors like aviation, trucking, and maritime transport

MatEdU has also been partnered with the Colorado School of Mines (a public research university in Golden, CO) and Dr. Cynthia Howell for many years (click on the “Spotlight” link to learn more about her work). She and Mines lead in driving the future of sustainable materials and clean energy at the university and also at the Critical Materials Institute through the Ames National Laboratory. Read some of their recent news on Green Hydrogen research.

Among other resources, we provide easily accessible PDF modules that encapsulate the essence of these topics, giving you what you need as a teacher: the requisite knowledge to teach others about sustainable energy. Visit the searchable Materials Education Modules page.

As mentioned, the Colorado School of Mines is a MatEdU partner and two of their recent modules fit right into this sustainable materials post:

Making Sense of Critical Materials: An Introductory Lesson on the Supply and Demand of Critical Materials: (This link will take you directly to the module page, where you can type in Critical Materials). This PDF is the first one you will see and it will allow you to download an Intro, a Teacher version, and a Student version.

Making sense of critical materials PDF

The Circular Economy of Lithium-Ion Batteries follows the same instructions and you will find documents you can download.

Circular Economy and Lithium-Ion Batteries

One final resource and a new ally we want to share with our readers:

Greentown Labs is an incubator and community committed to addressing the climate crisis through entrepreneurship and collaboration. They started and are based in Boston, but recently opened a Houston location. Both locations welcome startup founders, policymakers, investors, and corporate executives who want to take climate action and transform energy use, building construction, transportation, food production, and water management. They believe in the power of climate tech startups, which, of course, involve a lot of work in materials science. Greentown Labs operates as a supportive and non-equity incubator for early-stage entrepreneurs, providing access to resources, equipment, programming, and staff support.

Each of these organizations is working hard to ensure that we have clean energy solutions that are sustainable and smart. Please connect us with others that are doing similar work.