Carbon Net Zero Research at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source
09 Nov 2021
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Research at ISIS supports the UK government's ambitious plan to reach a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, tackling climate change through reducing emissions, using cleaner sources of energy and greener transport solutions.

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NASA photo of the earth

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Cover of the UK Government Net Zerp StrategyAchieving the goal of a carbon neutral economy will be underpinned by advancing and exploiting our knowledge of materials. Neutrons and muons provide unique insights into how materials function at the atomic and molecular scale, to reduce emissions in all seven government priority areas of power, fuel supply and hydrogen, industry, heat and buildings, transport, natural resources, waste and F-gases, and greenhouse gas removals.​

​​Power

The government plans to fully decarbonise our power system by 2035, including a target of 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. Assessing the structural integrity of wind turbine foundations is a key concern for the energy industry, and experiments at ISIS have examined the most popular type of offshore wind turbine foundation – the monopile.

For the nuclear industry, ISIS has been used to study reactor materials and graphite moderators​. AREVA used our Engin-X beamline to study the effect of new welding techniques, and EDF have used our Sans2D beamline to look at how they could extend the life of Advanced Gas Cooler Reactors.

There has also been extensive research on the development of photovoltaic cells, for example studying the layered structure of highly efficient organic thin films for cheaper, more environmentally friendly, solar energy technologies

​​Fuel Supply & Hydrogen

Many groups of researchers come to ISIS each year to study materials relevant to the hydrogen economy. This is because the unique way that neutrons interact with matter make them a very useful tool for studying small atoms like hydrogen in a material that contains heavier atoms. 

For hydrogen to become widespread as an energy vector, materials required to make its production, storage and use more efficient are needed.​​

In addition to ​​hydrogen researchers have been using ISIS to ​reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Indonesian researchers have used the facility to ​establish a viable method of using palm oil biomass waste in place of palm oil to meet their own​ government targets, while aother group has been using neutrons to optimise a high efficiency catalyst for a greener approach to biofuel synthesis​. ​​​

​Industry

​​Catalysts are used across a wide variety of different industrial processes and will have a significant impact when working towards Net Zero. 

  • ​Explore our interactive graphic​ to see some of the different roles that catalysts play in the road to Net Zero, and how neutrons are used to study them and make them more effective.
​Our reliance on fossil fuels isn't restricted to the energy sector - ​fossil resources provide the feedstock materials for plastics and ​ power the plastic manufacturing processes. The plastic industry requires a staggering amount of oil for this purpose, annually using the same quantity as the global aviation sector. Researchers have used inelastic neutron scattering to study the properties of a sugar-based plastic​ that could replace conventional plastic bottles.​

Heat​ and Buildings​

​​​​​Heating homes and buildings ​​makes up almost a third of UK carbon emissions. ​In addition to the research that will support the generation and distribution of greener electricity, neutron research has been used to investigate ​s​​tronger, greener cement​ made from waste ​​from sugar production. ​Neutron reflectivity has been used to take a look at the internal layers of solar cells​, to see how their structure could impact their performance. Dye-sensitised solar cells are a special type of photovoltaics that are transparent and flexible, giving them huge potential for applications such as solar powered windows​​.

​Transport

​During COP26, a new company was announced​ that ​will deliver a pioneering, world-leading decarbonising technology to sectors such as aviation and shipping, using ISIS' world-leading expertise in ammonia-cracking and catalysis. It is in collaboration with aerospace manufacturer Reaction Engines Engines' heat exchanger technology with funding from intellectual property commercialisation investors IP Group. The new venture will design and bring to market lightweight and compact cracking reactors for green ammonia, providing net zero solutions for hard-to-decarbonise sectors.​​

The electrification of transport has led to enormous increases in battery cell production around the world. In the context of addressing both climate change and limited natural resources, battery production needs to be done in a sustainable way, using abundant materials, extending cell lifetimes, and ultimately heading towards a circular economy. ISIS has been used by battery scientists from around the world researching sustainable improvements and alternatives to lithium-ion batteries.

Sodium-ion and magnesium-ion batteries show promise as cheaper alternatives to lithium-ion technology. Experiments done at ISIS showed that sodium and magnesium ions moved in a similar way to lithium ions in the respective cathode materials, representing a promising step towards a realistic alternative option for electric vehicles. Researchers from the Faraday Institution have investigated the performance of a half-cell made with NMC811, a material increasingly used in the cathode of electric vehicle batteries due to its competitive price and energy density properties.

​There are also ways to make existing vehicles more efficient through the use of thermoelectric materials to generate ​​electricity through waste heat​

Natural resources, waste and F-gases

​Improving the efficiency of food production through farming might sound an unlikely area for neutron research, but scientists have used the IMAT instrument to map the root structure and water distribution of wheat plants in life-like soil conditions​. ​​These findings are crucial when considering how dry spells in the weather affect plant growth, and what can be done to the soil to mitigate these effects. Also Neutron reflectometry has been to investigate how the fine-tuning of pesticide formulations could further increase crop yields, as part of a project supported by the agrochemical company, Syngenta. The facility has also been used to study the phenomenon of 'giant magneto-elastic coupling​,' which is capable of producing a similar cooling effect to that found in conventional fridges, reducing the need for hydrofluorocarbons.

Greenhouse Gas Removal

Crucial to reaching Net Zero carbon emissions will be the development of cheap and effective technologies for capturing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Highly porous materials such as zeolites and metal organic framework (MOFs) are likely to be at the forefront in this area. ISIS has played an important role in using neutrons to characterise a range of porous materials​ for use in applications including gas storage, catalysis and biomass fuel production.​

​To gain quantitative mechanistic insight into how these disordered systems function requires direct observation of the interactions of CO2 with these materials. However, CO2 (and greenhouse gases such as NOx and SOx) are on the limit of present capabilities. Instruments being developed under ISIS' Endeavour programme​ will enable direct observation of the structure and dynamics of CO2 and other molecules (notably hydrogen where neutron techniques are uniquely placed) in porous systems.​

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Contact: Fletcher, Sara (STFC,RAL,ISIS)