Chemical science and sustainable energy solutions
01 January 2006
This was the finding of the RSC's recent report on Chemical Science Priorities for Sustainable Energy Solutions. In 2004, the RSC's Environment Sustainability and Energy Forum (ESEF) established an energy policy working group to develop an outlook for chemical science research in the context of energy. Their report gives an account of where the chemical sciences will play a major role and what needs to be done to facilitate both academic and industrial research and development.
The group's goal was to define the challenges and priority areas for the chemical sciences in sustainable energy, across the energy distribution system and for all major energy sources.
The group focussed on presenting sound scientific evidence to support its key recommendations. The report is intended to provide guidance to funding bodies and policy makers on maximising the impact of the chemical sciences in sustainable energy research.
The next half century will be a period of significant change. High oil and natural gas prices with the impact of predictions of climate change will be the drivers towards more cost effective renewable energy technologies and new lower energy demand technologies for heating, lighting, transport and IT.
The transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to a more sustainable energy mix will require considerable ingenuity from chemists and the other science and engineering disciplines. As well as developing sustainable energy systems they will need to find more efficient ways of producing, refining and using fossil fuels during the transition.
The RSC report, Chemical Science Priorities for Sustainable Energy Solutions adopts a lifecycle approach. It considers primary energy production, energy distribution, energy use and the handling of waste products.
Maximising fossil fuels
Pessimistic estimates of the global oil reserves forecast that oil production will peak between 2010 and 2030 but global coal reserves are predicted to last for hundreds of years. It is certain that fossil fuels will play some part in our future energy mix for at least the next 50 years.
The RSC report identifies challenges to the chemical science in maximising the yield of oil extraction from global reserves. Refining crude oil offers several key challenges to the chemical sciences. Improved catalysts are needed to increase process efficiency, reduce energy and produce cleaner products such as ultralow sulphur diesel. The report also highlights the development of lower energy processes to replace distillation, such as membrane separation.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS)
If some use of fossil fuels is accepted, it is vital that some means of capturing and safely storing carbon dioxide on a large scale can be developed so that targets for carbon dioxide reduction can still be met.
The RSC report states that to capture and store carbon dioxide safely will rely on the skills of a range of disciplines, including the chemical sciences. For storing carbon dioxide there are three broad options, depleted oil and gas fields, deep saline aquifers or unmineable coal seams. In the UK the first two options are the most feasible. The number of technical challenges to achieve CCS on the scale required is formidable.
The scope for innovative chemistry research in developing the full potential of renewable energy technologies is considerable. With significant reductions in the cost of photovoltaic (PV) devices that convert sunlight into electricity, a growing market for PV solar cells is developing.
In addition to solar power, the RSC report identified biofuels as an area where the chemical sciences would have input, in the development of enzymes to breakdown plant matter and the optimisation of gasification and thermochemical conversion processes.
Nuclear fission currently contributes 23% of electrical energy in the UK. However, many of the plants are approaching the end of their operational lives and by 2023 all but Sizewell B are due to be closed. Whilst nuclear fission is a low-carbon form of electricity generation there are issues around the public acceptability of such a solution which policy makers will need to consider above and beyond any of the technological limitations that exists.
Irrespective of whether or not the UK commissions new nuclear power stations, reliable and durable solutions for storing nuclear waste are needed as well as technologies for decommissioning power stations and cleaning up contaminated land. Environmental chemistry and the fundamental science of materials for immobilising nuclear waste will have a pivotal role to play.
Radiochemistry skills gap
The RSC report identifies that there is a severe shortage of skilled radiochemists in the UK. This issue needs to be addressed urgently so that the UK will have the skilled scientists needed to deal with our significant legacy of nuclear waste.
Nuclear fusion creates energy by fusing atoms together, rather then splitting them as occurs in fission. Fusion technology is still a long way off but potentially offers a long term energy solution.
The RSC report identifies the greatest technological challenges in fusion research as the provision of materials capable of withstanding high power loadings that are both non-magnetic and resistant to radiation.
The hydrogen economy
Hydrogen, coupled with fuel cell technology, offers an alternative to our current reliance on fossil fuels for transport and power generation.
For a sustainable hydrogen economy, hydrogen will need to be produced using renewable energy and a sustainable feedstock rather than from petrochemical sources. A successful transition to the hydrogen economy will require a reliable and efficient means of creating, transporting and storing hydrogen.
The RSC report identifies significant challenges that need to be tackled for this to happen. Significant research is still required before hydrogen fuel cells will become competitive, such as the development of better materials for fuel cells and for on-board storage of hydrogen fuel. Perhaps the greatest current research challenge is in developing storage solutions for hydrogen that are safe and effective on both the large and small scale.
The push towards greener chemical technology includes reducing the energy demands of the chemical industry.
The report considers several approaches where new chemistry is key. Research chemists should consider alternative sources of energy for chemical reactions such as photochemical, microwave and ultrasonic. These may offer significant energy savings over more conventional energy sources.
Chemists and engineers should also look to develop more efficient processing technology by using more efficient technologies such as spinning disc reactors, where centrifugal forces can create more energy efficient systems, and membrane separation technology, where semi-permeable membranes are used to replace more energy-consuming separation technologies.
Message to government
The Government needs to put in place a long term framework to provide financial incentives to promote R&D associated with sustainable energy technologies. The report concludes that this should most likely be fiscal incentives such as R&D tax credits.
The RSC group also concluded that significant long term funding is needed for the fundamental chemistry and application specific chemistry to stimulate and encourage energy related research.
Innovative energy related R&D in the UK will rely on a strong chemical science base including materials chemistry, catalysis, combustion chemistry, and radiochemistry.
In addition, financial incentives should help to recruit and retain outstanding, internationally competitive scientists to work in energy related R&D in the UK.
Educating the next generation
The committee recommended that the RSC should work to influence government and regulatory authorities to include areas relating to chemistry and energy in the school curriculum. Currently energy education is covered mainly in areas most closely identified with physics and this seems to give a skewed picture.
Continual professional development for school teachers should also help by keeping their knowledge up to date with developments related to sustainable energy.
The chemical context of energy must also be better represented in the undergraduate chemistry curriculum, including the chemistry of energy production, the carbon cycle and the radiochemistry related to nuclear power. Highlighting these applications of chemistry will encourage chemists to pursue careers and R&D in the area.
As energy research is so inter-disciplinary, the RSC report concluded that greater interactions between the various scientific and engineering learned and professional societies would help to bring academic communities together. To this aim the RSC is planning an international sustainable energy conference in September 2007.
Attitudes to energy
The report also stresses the importance of changing attitudes and values amongst the public and key decision makers. Learned societies such as the RSC have a role here in raising awareness and providing accessible scientific information.
The RSC has already begun this task. In 2005 seminars for policy makers were held to discuss both climate change and nuclear power. In 2006 the RSC plans a major awareness raising campaign on sustainable energy.
Chemistry is critical
It is perhaps not immediately obvious that there is a role for the chemical sciences in sustainable energy. However, the RSC's report has demonstrated that chemistry certainly has a critical part to play throughout the entire life cycle of energy generation.
However, on a more sober note, the RSC recognises that technology cannot solve the world energy problems alone and it is vital that all stakeholders play a part in minimising energy demand and committing themselves to the philosophy of sustainable development.
15 February 2006