Does science have a responsibility to be sustainable? The Graphene Flagship, one of the European Commission’s biggest research projects, is working to bring graphene out of labs and into society. But, what kind of impact will graphene have on daily life?
In this article, Vincenzo Palermo, vice director of the Graphene Flagship, discusses how they are spearheading towards sustainability.
The role of scientists is to discover new things and advance human knowledge. But, we also have a responsibility to use this knowledge to create a better world and more sustainable future.
Pursuing sustainability through scientific excellence has been at the heart of the Graphene Flagship since its inception. More recently, we have decided to make this effort more visible by clearly linking our efforts to the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). This has not only helped us to share our vision externally, but has challenged us to find new, disruptive ways our technology can help Europe become more sustainable.
The European Union has set ambitious targets for sustainability and the environment. At the heart of the European Green Deal is the pledge to be climate-neutral by 2050.
Two spearhead projects that promise significant impact on environmental challenges focus on technologies for energy storage and energy generation.
Energy storage for electric vehicles
SDG 13, climate action, looks at ways that countries, organisations and individuals can mitigate the effects of climate change. In line with this goal, the EU has pledged to see at least 40 per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, from 1990 levels, and at least a 32.5 per cent improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.
Transport accounts for almost a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the European Green Deal seeks a 90 per cent reduction in this by 2050. One of the ways to achieve this is through electrical vehicles — by 2025, around 13 million zero- and low-emission vehicles are expected on European roads.
However, while they offer a reduction in emissions, electric vehicles do have drawbacks. Charging, range and cost are just some of the concerns regarding electric vehicle batteries. Therefore, improvements in energy storage technology will be necessary to achieve the EU’s goals for transport emissions and energy efficiency.
The Graphene Enabled High-Energy Batteries for Automotive Applications (GreenBAT) project aims to improve battery technology for electric vehicles, helping the EU achieve its sustainability goals.
Alongside other industrial partners involved in GreenBAT, VARTA Microbattery, BeDimensional and VARTA Micro Innovation are developing battery technology based on a patented graphene fabrication and silicon-graphene compounding process.
Currently, lithium-ion battery technology is unrivalled, as it is the most mature and flexible system. The introduction of nickel-rich cathodes and silicon-composites will represent the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. Graphene, or more specifically few-layered graphene, improves cyclability, leading to an overall energy increase of 25 per cent when used in silicon-dominant anodes.
Another roadblock to sustainability is that the manufacturing process for EVs generates more emissions than producing internal combustion engines, mainly due to the production of batteries and battery materials. So, Graphene Flagship partners are also researching improving lithium ion battery production and creating a circular economy for batteries.
While EVs and more efficient energy storage present a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the transport sector, this is only a real saving if the energy used to power them is generated sustainably.
Solar energy generation
By 2030, the EU aims to see at least a 32 per cent share for renewable energy in Europe’s energy mix. Efficient solar power generation will be necessary to meet this target.
However, mainstream silicon solar technology is reaching the limit of its economic and practical photovoltaic efficiency. Perovskite solar cells (PSCs) are widely predicted to offer a solution, offering much better performance than their silicon counterparts. The downside is that PSCs are infamously unstable, which is where graphene comes in.
Graphene Flagship spearhead project GRAPES aims to make cost-effective, stable graphene-enabled perovskite panels. It is aligned with SDG 7, clean and affordable energy.
One Graphene Flagship partner involved in GRAPES is ENEL Green Power SPA, Italy. This leading green energy company holds the world record power conversion efficiency (PCE) for a silicon heterojunction cell, 24.63 per cent, but believes graphene will help them beat that.
By using graphene and related materials (GRMs) as interlayers in tandem cells that combine PSCs and silicon cells, ENEL Green Power and Graphene Flagship partners have reached record stability and efficiency, demonstrating a PCE increase of nine per cent for GRM-based perovskite-silicon tandem cells, as opposed to tandem cells without GRMs.
As well as taking advantage of the transparency and stability of graphene in the interlayers of the solar cell, a highly conductive graphene-based paste will be used in the back contact and metal front grid, replacing expensive and finite metals such as silver.
GRAPES will play an essential role in improving Europe’s uptake of solar energy projects and meeting its environmental targets, particularly by improving the stability and efficiency of solar cell technology when deployed on a large scale.
Scientific knowledge is able to improve lives and is a key tool to fighting climate change and ensuring a future for generations to come. The Graphene Flagship hopes to lead the way by focusing on energy efficiency, the replacement of rare materials by common ones, and ensuring its research is environmentally compatible. Through aligning our work with the sustainable development goals, we have made this focus even more visible, and will continue to work towards securing a greener future for Europe.
The Graphene Flagship is research, innovation and collaboration. Funded by the European Commission, the Graphene Flagship aims to secure a major role for Europe in the ongoing technological revolution, helping to bring graphene innovation out of the lab and into commercial applications. The Graphene Flagship gathers nearly 170 academic and industrial partners from 21 countries, all exploring different aspects of graphene and related materials. Bringing diverse competencies together, the Graphene Flagship facilitates cooperation between its partners, accelerating the timeline for industry acceptance of graphene technologies. The European Commission’s FET Flagships enable research projects on an unprecedented scale. With €1 billion budgets, the Graphene Flagship, Human Brain Project and Quantum Flagship serve as technology accelerators, helping Europe to compete with other global markets in research and innovation.