Energy For The Future

Work at the forefront of human understanding is possible when scientists across the country work together, says Keith GordonThe University of Otago Professor of Chemistry is the MacDiarmid Institute’s Science Leader in the vital area of Materials for Energy Capture and Utilisation.  “There are a couple of things to think about with energy. First we want to make some, then we want to try to remediate CO2 from some of our traditional energy use,” he says. “The human race is at the cutting edge of understanding the types of materials that do this. Individually we wouldn’t be able to get there but when you bring the brains of the country together we become competitive on the world scene.”  He says two significant areas of research into energy capture, offer different paths to potential growth for New Zealand manufacturing. “Organic photovoltaics is a bit riskier but has a big payoff. Light harvesting coating is adding value to technology that’s already out there, so it’s a bit closer to being put in place. It’s quite nice to back two horses.” Photovoltaics can be used to generate electric power by using solar cells to convert energy from the sun. Gordon anticipates the MacDiarmid Institute will be field-testing photovoltaics in the next three years. “If you want to make some energy that’s where they come in. They can be made with technology that’s not that dissimilar to how you make a bag to put potato chips in. A more expensive bag, and one, which is basically multi-layered but can be fabricated in a similar way. We’ve got a lot of people working together on printable photovoltaic technology that’s pretty tractable within the New Zealand environment, because we’re not trying to make something that requires an intensive engineering infrastructure. We can see it having a significant role to play in New Zealand industry if it expands.”  The result of light harvesting coating work could be in use within the next three years. “We take materials we know work reasonably well and we improve their structure so they work even better. So with nanofabrication, we take a substrate and etch structures on to it or add quantum dots to enhance its capacity. That’s what we are doing with silicon, a substance where many of the associated problems are already solved. If we nanostructure the silicon we can improve it then put it in our prototype or building and see how it behaves. It has real potential to create industries that might be viable in New Zealand.”  Meanwhile, metal organic framework materials for carbon dioxide separation could help to resolve one of the biggest issues the planet is facing. “We’ve found by taking the right components and putting them together in a solution, what can fall out is a beautiful networked material. It’s rather like a big sponge on a nanometric scale. If engineered correctly that material will preferentially soak up carbon dioxide without soaking up oxygen or nitrogen.” Gordon says fundamental work with nanostructured electrode material provides a foundation important in areas across the whole Institute. “We know that a nanostructured electrode material can do a whole lot of things better than an unstructured material.  Little pyramids that are nanometric-sized and just the right sort of shape, imbued with molecules with the sort of energy to do what you want them to do. “  Gordon says training students in these leading areas of energy research is key to MacDiarmid’s focus of mentoring emerging entrepreneurial scientists. “We want to train them at the top end. Yes the research is risky and not so easy.  But we never know what our students will go on to do next, so we want to train them rigorously. This is the best environment to do it.”