2D materials to benefit renewable energy market

Tackling one of the main challenges holding back Australia's renewable energy market

With close to half-a-million dollars from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project scheme, a team of researchers at the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials (ISEM) is planning to tackle one of the main challenges holding back Australia’s renewable energy market – inefficiencies in generating and storing renewable energy.

The team, led by Distinguished Professor Shi Xue Dou and Chief Investigators Dr Wenping Sun and Dr Ji Liang, also from UOW, is aiming to develop a cutting-edge electrocatalyst technology platform based on two-dimensional materials technology that could have substantial benefits for sustainable energy production and conversion. Professor Dou, one of the world’s most influential scientists in energy materials, superconducting and electronic materials research, says the project has multiple objectives and will have benefits for Australia’s scientific capabilities as well as the economy and the environment.

The project, titled Controlling and Understanding Interface Chemistry for Energy Conversions, will unfold over three years with the first phase of work focused on the creation of an electrocatalyst technology platform based on novel two-dimensional (2D) material architectures. Such materials could have applications in processes such as water electrolysis for hydrogen production and electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction reaction for producing high-value chemicals, currently performed using noble metal-based materials (such as materials based on gold or silver) which, though considered state-of-the-art electrocatalysts, are costly and suffer from activity degradation.

Professor Dou’s team, in their search for multi-metal 2D material-based electrocatalysts, will test various configurations of noble and non-noble metals.

“2D materials possess high surface-to-volume ratios and good structural stability, and they show great potential for electrocatalysis applications and other energy applications," Professor Dou explains.

“The success of this project would not only shed light on the rational design and synthesis of nanostructures with well-defined interfaces and surfaces for electrocatalysis applications but also accelerate the development and commercialisation of renewable technologies across Australia.”

Water electrolysis driven by renewable electricity can produce substantial clean hydrogen, which will be vital for achieving a hydrogen economy in Australia, according to Professor Dou.

“Australia has an abundant land area and renewable energy resources for building industrial-scale electrochemical energy conversion plants (water electrolysis plants and devices for electrochemical carbon dioxide reduction, for example). These energy conversion systems would allow intermittent renewable electricity to be utilised more efficiently. Furthermore, electrochemical synthesis of useful fuels and chemicals from CO2 can make full use of renewable electricity as well as greatly reduce CO2 emissions.”

Ultimately, the success of this project could accelerate the establishment of a low-carbon industry in Australia and enhance national research capacity in energy materials as well as renewable energy technologies.

Market for 2D materials

Scientists have identified several hundred 2D materials in the past decade and researchers worldwide are investing valuable time and money to uncover the thousands of more single-layer materials that may be out there waiting to be discovered. The desirability of such materials may be understood best in the light of graphene, the original and probably the best known 2D material, which was isolated in 2004. The global market value of graphene is predicted to reach US$1 billion in less than a decade, driven by demand for lightweight, renewable, durable and flexible materials across multiple industries.

Single-layer materials as a whole often satisfy many of these criteria plus more. Many have also been found to have high electrical, chemical and thermal conductivity, which makes them desirable in various applications and industries, including renewable energies.

“Our project proposes new material design concepts and material synthesis approaches for heterostructured electrocatalysts with well-defined interfaces and it’s critical to explore new catalyst design concepts and easily scaled-up wet-chemistry approaches for developing low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity, selectivity, and durability for the substantial development of emerging electrochemical energy conversion techniques,” Professor Dou explains.

“Furthermore, the newly developed heterostructures will not only provide new electrocatalyst alternatives but also expand the family of heterostructures based on 2D materials, which is of great significance for the development of materials science and nanotechnology.”

“Our research has the potential to impact millions of Australians through the development of a cutting-edge electrocatalyst technology platform for a sustainable energy future but also through the cultivation of next-generation materials scientists through high-quality training.”

Decades of experience

The Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials (ISEM) is one of two research institutes located within the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials (AIIM). Professor Shi Xue Dou is one of three Chief Investigators for the project from UOW. His co-leaders are ISEM colleagues and ARC DECRA award recipients Dr Wenping Sun and Dr Ji Liang who each have 10 years of research experience in electrocatalysis and energy materials. They have made critical contributions to the proposal and will be the main players for final deliveries of the proposed project.

The trio’s Partner Investigators are at three organisations in three different countries. Professor Changzheng Wu is from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. Assistant Professor Yuanyue Liu is from The University of Texas at Austin. Professor Dr Jong- Beom Baek is at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korean.

The Discovery Projects scheme provides project funding of between $30,000 and $500,000 per year for up to five consecutive years. Funding for the project was announced by Minister for Education Dan Tehan in December 2019. Almost $285 million in funding for 660 new research collaborations to begin in 2020 was announced at the time.

"Our Government is investing in high-quality research and the future of Australian research being carried out in our universities," Mr Tehan said in a media release.

"The research done by our universities can lead to the development of new products and innovations that drive job growth, business opportunities and productivity gains.

"This investment will help develop solutions to problems in areas such as health, infrastructure, economics and the environment. Our Government is strategically investing in partnerships between universities, industry and government to drive the commercialisation of research."

  • DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR SHI XUE DOU: To read more about Distinguished Professor Shi Xue Dou take a look at his Scholars profile