Materialise: a science quest

The MacDiarmid Institute is leading a conversation about materials science and its contribution to a future New Zealand that is environmentally and economically sustainable.  As a way to broaden this conversation and include future users and creators of materials technology, we’ve created a game aimed at school students. 

 

In this quest-style game, players meet four leading materials scientists, Amy Prieto, Michael Fuhrer, Anita Hill and Kit Cummins and help them to solve science challenges related to the creation and storage of clean energy and creating computers that use less energy. 

 

The game mentions using one atom thin materials like graphene to make next generation, low-energy computing materials, the role of phosphorus in solar photovoltaics, and the role of lithium in making more efficient and safer batteries, as well as the need for cleaner ways of extracting lithium and recycling phosphorus.

 

The game is live now and we invite everyone to play!

 

A little more about the science behind the Materialise: A Science Quest

Michael Fuhrer, Amy Prieto, Anita Hill and Kit Cummins are real scientist solving real problems right now. To put the game together, we asked each of these scientist a bit about their science and this is what they told us.

 

Michael Fuhrer

Monash University and FLEET

 

Hi, I’m Michael Fuhrer from Monash University and I’m working on new materials which are only one or a few atoms thick, like graphene, a one-atom thick sheet of carbon.

 

What problem are you trying to solve?

The world’s energy use is increasing dramatically.

About 8% of our electricity is used for computing, and that amount is growing rapidly, as we want our computers to do more for us. We need to do two things:

  • create ways to generate more energy without damaging the environment
  • create computers that still can run amazing games and other things but use far less energy to be able to work properly

 

What’s causing this problem?

Every time you use a computer, Google something or play a game, it uses energy to make electrons buzz around international networks.

 

As it does this, some of that energy is lost because in today’s computer chips (which are small but still 3D, like a box), electrons bump around inside.  This is called resistance and it wastes energy.

 

It also heats up the material inside computers and networks as it moves information around. Then we need to use even more energy to cool those networks down (otherwise they’d overheat and stop working).

 

How can science help find a solution?

Scientists have discovered some new ways to make electrons move without any resistance or wasted energy. One way is to use what’s called a ‘topological insulator’, which doesn’t conduct in its interior (is insulating), but does conduct along its boundaries (surfaces or edges).

 

If a topological insulator is very thin, just a few atoms thick, it can conduct along its edges perfectly, with no resistance or wasted energy.  To create new atomically thin topological insulators, we need atoms with the right properties, such as bismuth, and we need to arrange them into 2D sheets in the right way, such as in a hexagonal lattice (like chicken wire)

 

What difference would this solution make?

We can use our research into nano-scale materials to create new atomically thin materials that can be used in computer chips to save power and make more powerful computers available to everyone.

 

 

Kit Cummins

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

 

Hi, I’m Kit Cummins from MIT and I’m working on phosphorus chemistry.  My research group is inventing new chemical reactions to improve phosphorus utilization.

 

What problem are you trying to solve?

Phosphorus is the least abundant of the biogenic elements (elements that make up the main mass of living organisms). We need to do two things:

  • create greener chemical processes for phosphorus utilization in industry
  • create strategies for phosphorus recycling and recovery

 

What’s causing this problem?

The traditional method for phosphorus utilization in industry involves the initial reduction of phosphate at 1500 °C with carbon as the source of electrons.  This requires input of large amounts of electrical energy.

 

Natural deposits of phosphate rock are not geographically evenly distributed, and they are being depleted rapidly by mining for synthetic phosphate fertilizer production.  Phosphate mining can also releases some of the naturally radioactive material into the environment.

 

Phosphorus from waste waters (sewage, agricultural runoff) needs to be recovered and recycled, rather than released into bodies of water where it is effectively dispersed and behaves as a pollutant

 

How can science help find a solution?

At the interface of the biosphere and the technosphere there are many opportunities for scientific innovation.  Energy efficient pathways are being invented for phosphate conversion to valuable chemicals using renewable energy, instead of the high temperature, energy intensive processes used today.

 

Strategies for selective capture of phosphate from waster water streams can form the basis for a new phosphorus cycle on Earth.

 

Our research has uncovered a novel reaction for phosphate reduction in a way that leverages energy inputs from the much larger market for silicon production. 

 

Precipitation of phosphate from waste waters can lead to its recovery in the mineral struvite, and there are organisms that are good at concentrating phosphate from waste waters.

 

What difference would this solution make?

We can use our research to create a global phosphorus cycle with new phosphate conversion technologies having minimal waste and energy inputs, and can develop new ways to recover and recycle phosphorus from waste streams.

 

Amy Prieto

Colorado State Univeristy, Founder and CTO of Prieto Battery.

 

Hi, I’m Amy Prieto from Colorado State University in the US.  I’m working on new architectures for safer, faster, lithium ion rechargeable batteries.

 

What problem are you trying to solve?

The world is creating more sustainable ways to generate energy (like from the sun and the wind), but we need good ways to store that energy so we can use it when we need it.  We also need to be mindful that we:

  • store that energy safely
  • and that the ways we make these energy storage devices are environmentally sustainable.

 

What’s causing the problem?

Storing more and more energy in smaller batteries can lead to fires and explosions.  We need to find ways to build new batteries that store a lot of energy, but that are safer. This means we need to think about manufacturing methods that let us incorporate all of the components of the battery seamlessly.

 

How can science help find a solution?

If you can integrate all device components in three-dimensional (3D) architectures on the nanoscale to make a 3D battery, you can potentially eliminate flammable chemicals, which leads to safer batteries.  Also, the 3D architecture leads to batteries that can charge and discharge very quickly (which means more power).

 

We are focused on discovering ways to make 3D lithium ion batteries, not just for their amazing properties, but using manufacturing methods that are inexpensive and use safe chemicals. That means we have to rethink how the battery industry currently makes batteries.

 

What difference would this solution make?

We could have far more powerful and far safer batteries that are made in environmentally sustainable ways

 

 

Anita Hill 

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

 

Hi, I’m Anita Hill from CSIRO and I’m working on low energy methods for separating small molecules and ions from mixtures so that the materials can be used and reused

 

What problem are you trying to solve?

The world’s energy use is increasing dramatically.

We can generate energy using solar photovoltaics (PVs) and use batteries to store the energy for when we need it. The batteries need a small ion, the lithium ion or Li+, to flow in order to charge and discharge the battery. We need to get the lithium ions without damaging our environment.

 

What’s causing this problem?

With continual speed and computing power advancements in lithium ion battery powered devices, demand for lithium across the globe has quickly outpaced the rate at which it can be mined or recycled. Therefore we need a way to get lithium ions quickly from new sources using little energy and without damaging our environment.  Seawater and brines contain lithium ions so if the ions can be easily extracted from sea water and brines, we may have a solution.

 

How can science help find a solution?

We have recently discovered a new, efficient way to extract lithium ions from water, using a metal organic framework-based membrane that mimics the filtering function, or ‘ion selectivity,’ of organic biological cell membranes. The membrane process separates metal ions in a highly efficient and cost-effective manner, opening the door to revolutionary technological possibilities for clean lithium extraction and recycling.

 

Mixtures, such as salt and water, are usually mixtures because they want to be. They would rather hang out together than be separated. For this reason 97% of Earth’s water is salt water. We used the mechanism similar to that used by our cell walls to separate the salt ions from the water molecules. Our cell walls and plant cell walls use ‘ion filters’ so we made a material like that. It uses low energy to rapidly separate the lithium ions from the water.

 

What difference would this solution make?

We could have a low-energy, environmentally responsible way to access to the lithium we need to keen on making more batteries.