Producing Energy and Helping the Environment with Analytical Chemistry

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The growing global population, rapid industrialization of developing economies and increased pressure on governments and industry to reduce carbon emissions to tackle climate change has put an unprecedented strain on the energy industry.

A transformation in the way in which we produce, transport and store energy is required if these demands are to be met. Central to this transformation is the study of materials for next-generation devices for green energy systems and environmental monitoring.

In this article advancements in battery and fuel cell technology and the role of analytical chemistry in the development of such devices will be discussed. The implications of such devices on the environment and techniques to monitor their impact will also be explored, as will the future of energy in the digital era.

Energy sources and storage

The growing demand for renewable energy, sophisticated portable electronics, and electric vehicles requires innovative material solutions in which analytical chemistry plays a central role. Advances in fuel cells and rechargeable batteries would help usher in a new age of energy storage and conservation by supplementing intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind and by providing faster charging, high capacity batteries for electric vehicles.

Both fuel cells and batteries produce energy via the oxidation of atoms and subsequent flow of electrons and ions through an external circuit and electrolyte respectively; however, unlike batteries, fuel cells require a constant supply of fuel, typically a hydrogen or a hydrogen-rich substance.

Batteries and fuel cells play a central role in green transport, mobile electronics, energy management systems and mass energy storage. Current research is centered on improving the performance, safety, and cost of energy storage devices.

For new materials to be implemented in commercial devices detailed understanding of their underlying chemistry and structure is required. Advanced characterization techniques such as x-ray diffraction (XRD), x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) and tunneling electron microscopy (TEM) can help reveal important properties, such as degradation mechanisms, that could influence the battery’s performance.

Advancements in battery technology

With their lightweight, high energy density, low self-discharge rate, and rechargeability, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries have become the leading energy storage technology used today.

Current Li-ion battery research is centered on possible new electrode materials, electrolyte components and understanding dendrite formation to improve the capacity and safety of new Li-ion devices. Advanced characterization methods are necessary to shed light on the behavior of novel battery materials or configurations, ideally under operating conditions.

NMR spectroscopy is one such method, providing a means by which to characterize local structures by detecting characteristic electromagnetic signals induced by a combination of constant and oscillating magnetic fields, even in highly disordered, highly reactive systems such as in Li-ion electrolytes.

MRI is a non-destructive imaging technique that operates by the same principles as NMR spectroscopy but differs by taking time-resolved measurements, providing valuable special information to complement NMR inferences.

Concerns have been raised over the cost of Li-ion batteries as the need for large-scale energy storage intensifies. Sodium has been championed as a possible solution due to its low cost, abundance on Earth and similar electrochemical mechanisms to lithium. Sodium-ion (Na-ion) batteries are configured in much the same way to their lithium counterparts, but with a sodium-containing mineral as the cathode. The similarities between Li-ion and Na-ion batteries means that their manufacturing processes are also similar and fully adaptable to produce Na-ion devices.

The impact of energy on the environment

Our growing population, and the continued industrialization and urbanization of society, is putting an increasing strain on our planet. Changes in the environment are caused by such manmade issues as pollution, global warming, overpopulation, waste disposal, and deforestation, all of which are largely the product of unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

Our dependence on Li-ion technology has not come without cost to the environment. There is a growing battery waste problem worldwide which has led many regions, such as the EU, California and New York, to ban the disposal of rechargeable batteries in landfills, necessitating the development of alternative waste management strategies. However, lithium from Li-ion batteries is not the only polluting element infiltrating our soil, air, and water.

The introduction of foreign chemical species into an aquatic ecosystem can be detrimental to ecosystems and public health. Water chemical analysis is crucial when water is reintroduced to the environment following an industrial process or used for drinking to ensure there will be no harm to people or ecosystems. Common methods used to identify natural elements and chemical species in water are gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy.

Looking to the Future

The advancement of human society, and the new societal demands that come with it, drives progression and innovation in analytical chemistry. Analytical science is increasingly called on to provide solutions to problems such as unexpected environmental contamination events and the emergence of new, unregulated pollutants and is under scrutiny never before experienced by the field due to the increased connectivity of modern society. The development of new analytical methodologies and instruments to tackle such issues has focused on areas including miniaturization, automation, cost reduction, and sustainability.

Conclusion

As the world’s population grows the impact of human activity on the environment intensifies, as do demands for green energy solutions and new environmental monitoring techniques.

The demands placed on the analytical chemistry community will not diminish as efforts to reduce our impact on the environment progress but will continue to change as the need for new energy sources and monitoring solutions arise. The development of new materials and characterization instruments will be essential in the coming decades as governments and industries continue to tackle climate change.

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