Historical periods have been named after the materials that shaped the advancement of humanity. Their significance is immeasurable, and it could be argued that advances in materials science and the advancement of human civilization are correlated. The discovery and utilisation of bronze, iron – and, more recently, oil and aluminium, have been pivotal in human evolution. But where has the incessant pursuit of the next big material led us?
We are at a point where our over-dependence on fossil-based resources is no longer viable. Luckily for us and our planet, materials science is a field in which constant advances are being made to troubleshoot the imminent problems we are facing across the globe. Scientists, engineers and researchers are among those tirelessly looking for solutions to ensure a better future for us all, while trying to beat the relentlessly ticking time bomb of climate change, population growth, scarce raw materials and much more.
A circular economy is the future
Someone who has spent decades tirelessly working to defuse that bomb is Emily A. Carter, Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment, and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, whose current research is being backed by the US Department of Energy and US Department of Defence.
Carter believes that we must be moving towards operating in a fully circular economy: “For centuries, we have been extracting carbon out of the ground. It’s important not to demonise those who have made innovations in that space because ultimately, it’s what has enabled our way of life. None of the early innovators could have known the extent to which it would jeopardise the future of our planet until much more recently. Now that we know better, we must do better.”
Recycling, reusing and upcycling are likely to become the norm in the future. “We also need to rethink recycling and find new ways to recycle plastics and batteries more effectively, for example,” Carter notes.
New materials underway
According to the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, circular economy interventions in four key sectors – food and agriculture, construction, textiles and forestry – can halt global biodiversity loss and help the world recover. However, Sitra’s Project Director Kari Herlevi highlights that this will require significant changes in the way we produce, consume and manage products and materials.
Rethinking our current approach must include reassessing the types of fuels we use. Hydrogen is often presented as a “great green fuel” but, as Carter points out, 95% of the hydrogen in use, especially when driving, emitted CO2 when it was produced in the first place. The use of a completely green fuel would be monumental when utilised in industry, storage, transportation and electricity.
Carter's current research focuses on the understanding and design of materials for sustainable energy. She’s been working for several years with collaborators at Arizona State University on solar energy conversion to produce ‘green’ hydrogen using solar thermochemical water splitting.