Materials for energy applications
Fundamental materials research, across the whole energy landscape, into the synthesis, characterisation and theoretical understanding of functional materials to be used in energy applications. This area focusses on research into new and novel materials related to energy applications, including alternative energy vectors, thermoelectrics, semiconductors, photovoltaics (PV), semiconductors, fuel cells and energy storage. Materials can include, amongst others, polymeric, complex oxide, nanoionic, caloric and porous materials for potential future energy applications. This area only includes research into fundamental new and novel materials for current and future energy technologies, up to proof-of-principle validation of the new material properties. Research at higher TRL levels building on proof-of-principle (for example optimisation of materials and devices, or technology development), structural materials development and materials engineering are not included in this area, and are covered in related research areas.
This is a very active area of research that will have increasing relevance to key real-world challenges – especially the need to generate energy more sustainably and cost-effectively to meet UK carbon reduction targets and aid economic growth. By the end of the Delivery plan period, with our support:
- The community will have developed stronger interdisciplinary links. Researchers will work with those across the Physical Sciences portfolio (e.g. Materials for Energy Applications, Catalysis, Functional Ceramics and Inorganics), in conjunction with areas across the Energy portfolio (e.g. in the Solar Technology, Fuel Cell Technology, Energy Storage and UK Magnetic Fusion Research Programme research areas), through networks in the Supergen Programme and Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), and through the Faraday Institution and Sir Henry Royce Institute to go on supporting design and evolution of new and existing materials for energy applications – and ensuring full exploitation of novel materials.
- The community will be flexible enough to adapt to significant challenges in energy demand and to retain recognised expertise within the UK. Development of Materials for Energy Applications will make a significant contribution to ensuring the resilience and sustainability of future UK energy supply (e.g. by underpinning enablers for renewable energy). Training is also key to this area, as well as to the wider energy industry; people with the right skills are needed in both industry and academia.
- Researchers will have continued to succeed in applying for access to international facilities (an important consideration in a constrained capital environment), and to forge strong collaborations with international groups across the Materials for Energy field. This includes opportunities to contribute to ensuring global access to renewable energy and materials through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
- Researchers will have fostered strong links with the UK energy sector and industrial end-users, and supported the strategies of the Advanced Materials Leadership Council (AMLC), the Faraday Institution and the Sir Henry Royce Institute in the sphere of energy materials.
Growth in this area will be delivered through community co-ordination activities which we will help expand into a more unified, interdisciplinary network of researchers and industrial end-users (as in recent efforts in Advanced Materials for Energy Generation and Transmission). This will enable a more systematic approach to materials development and discovery.Highlights:
Significant changes are required in the current energy system to transition to a low carbon energy mix and meet the Government’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions targets. The required changes encompass energy storage technologies, efficient energy conversion devices, cost effective renewable generation technologies, new nuclear capability and management of nuclear waste.
Materials science has a key role to play in the future development of these technologies and fundamental materials and chemistry research undertaken in the UK is vital to maintaining this country’s competitive edge in the wider energy research landscape (Evidence source 1). Research is particularly strong in certain areas, including solar PV materials and devices, materials for fuel cells and energy storage (Evidence source 2,3). In nuclear fission, our internationally competitive (Evidence source 4) understanding of materials that can cope in extreme conditions is essential to new nuclear reactors, as well as to treatment and disposal of nuclear waste. Further development of technologies to improve efficiency, energy density or power conversion relies on the underpinning materials science, with a need for new or modified materials to deliver the next step-change in the field. Without them, UK capabilities will be limited.
The fundamental discovery and emergence of novel Materials for Energy Applications makes a significant contribution to the UK’s energy sector and the future of its energy infrastructure. For example, in 2013 the government published a strategy on solar energy which highlighted the opportunities for developing next-generation solar PV materials (Evidence source 3). More recently, it announced plans to invest £250 million in a nuclear R&D programme (Evidence source 5).
Innovation and involvement of other key technologies can help create numerous UK-based business opportunities in this area and also contribute to the future of the UK economy. This research area is of major interest to a number of companies across a spectrum of sectors, from energy to chemicals and manufacturing (Evidence source 6,7,8,9).
There has been steady growth in UK leadership and knowledge in this area and support across the various career stages is well-distributed. Training in this area has increased and should remain adaptable to accommodate changes within the energy sector, enabling researchers at both the fundamental materials level and the applied end of the research spectrum to feed into technological advances as the field evolves.
The research community does, however, face difficulties in scaling-up its investigations due to the low number of large-scale testing facilities available nationally for demonstrating and modelling new materials technologies. Nevertheless, researchers are successfully applying for access to international facilities and this level of interaction with other countries should be maintained.
This research area can contribute to a number of Ambitions within the Productive and Resilient Nation Outcomes, including:
P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies
This research area can contribute to development, design and characterisation of new materials (e.g. for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), fusion and energy storage).
R2: Ensure a reliable infrastructure which underpins the UK economy
P2: Ensure affordable solutions for national needs
This research area can help address future national needs by improving fundamental aspects of technological advances in the energy sector.
R1: Achieve energy security and efficiency
New materials and materials development will be critical to next-generation technologies for solar, energy storage (at all scales and for various purposes), energy conversion, nuclear fission and waste management.
P5: Transform to a sustainable society, with a focus on the circular economy
This research area will help meet the need to shift away from dependency on fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources.
- RCUK Energy Programme Strategy Fellowship, Energy Research and Training Prospectus: Electrochemical Energy Technologies and Energy Storage (PDF), (2014)
- EPSRC, Materially Better: Ensuring the UK is at the Forefront of Materials Science, (2013)
- Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), UK Solar PV Strategy Part 1: Roadmap to a Brighter Future, (2013)
- EPSRC Independent Review of Fission and Fusion (PDF) (2016)
- DECC, Small Modular Reactors Competition: Phase One, (2016)
- Innovate UK, Energy Systems Catapult: Welcome to the future of energy (PDF), (2016)
- Council for Science and Technology, Science Landscape Seminar Report: Energy, (2015)
- Council for Science and Technology, Science Landscape Seminar Report: Advanced Materials, (2015)
- North East Technology Park (NETPark), Materials Integration for High Technology SMEs, (2015)
Research area connections
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EPSRC support by research area in Materials for energy applications (GoW)
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