Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

ScienceJune 4, 2019

The cure for climate change could be in our own backyard

Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Climate treaties, sustainability goals and energy commitments are proliferating around the world. The answers to these targets must involve new materials and research in this area is happening in New Zealand, writes Dr Geoff Willmott.

Last Friday, students across the country walked out of school for the second time this year in protest against climate change inaction, joining their peers from more than a hundred countries. The current imperative for action on climate, energy and sustainability issues is clear. We must use less fossil fuel, or figure out how to capture the emissions. We want to keep our waterways clean, and to protect our coastlines from erosion and pollution. We need new, more sustainable modes of living, while still retaining a good quality of life, with hopefully pain-free transitions.

All of a sudden, microplastics, nitrate concentrations, and exploration permits are dinner-table discussion items. The Zero Carbon Bill is being debated in parliament, energy capability in Taranaki is being proactively realigned following the Just Transition summit this month, and the number of businesses joining the Climate Leaders’ Coalition is nearing 100.

When a new sustainability target is proposed, it is usually recognized that it won’t be reached by continuing with the status quo, and also that organizational change can only get you so far. To reach an aspirational target, technologies that do not yet exist will be required. So how do these advances actually get done?

Materials science, which is what we do at the MacDiarmid Institute, must be a central part of the answer. As materials scientists, we spend our time developing and exploring new materials (or ‘matter’, or ‘stuff’), trying to find new and interesting properties. If you want to store energy more efficiently and use more sustainable materials than lithium-ion batteries, then you will need to build batteries using new and better combinations of materials. If you want to reduce CO2 emissions by improving capture of gases at an industrial plant, you need to have a material that is better at storing or separating gases than what we have at the moment. If you want to build a hydrogen economy, then you will want to develop catalysts and processes to efficiently produce hydrogen using renewable energy sources.

MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator and Massey University Professor Shane Telfer and PhD student Omid Taheri in the lab where they’re exploring the potential of metal organic framework to match the size and shape CO2 molecules (photo: supplied).

Understanding and developing new materials can seem like a fairly innocuous corner of scientific endeavour. Yet materials science affects your household and lifestyle as much if not more than any field of research, and we have world-leading materials scientists working here in New Zealand.

At the MacDiarmid Institute, our people have become deeply motivated by the rather intimidating mission of the survival of our species, and this has become a more intensive focus of our research. Last week, our Techweek event featured research that’s making a difference to our chance of living safely on this planet.

We heard about research at Massey and Canterbury Universities which is exploring an exciting new class of materials known as metal-organic frameworks. These can be thought of as ‘molecular sponges’, and could be designed to efficiently store or separate gases, with obvious implications for reducing emissions. We also heard about research in Wellington to tackle the problem of enormous power consumption by data centres feeding our insatiable appetite for data storage, streaming and processing. The aim is to develop more energy efficient, faster computers using superconducting materials. Superconductors need to be operated at very low temperatures, so our researchers are addressing this challenge.

The event also included speakers from local companies that are creating solutions to our biggest problem. Hiringa Energy, based in Taranaki, has dedicated themselves to the supply of hydrogen as an alternative to fuels which emit greenhouse gases. They are aiming to meet the challenge of establishing production, distribution and refuelling infrastructure to enable adoption of hydrogen technologies. The Auckland start-up Mint Innovation has developed a chemical process for recovering valuable metals such as gold and copper from electronic waste, which otherwise ends up in landfill.

MacDiarmid Institute researcher Dr Eva Anton working in the clean lab researching new computer memory for superconductors (photo: supplied).

So the research that could help mitigate climate change is happening in our backyard, and much of it is publicly funded. Stable support for our university and CRI researchers is and will continue to be essential for making progress. However, there is nothing like an economic incentive to get things really moving, and sustainability and climate challenges are also economic opportunities. Solutions, advances, and efficiencies that are found to be effective in New Plymouth or Parnell can be exported. We can try to save the world, and we can also make a buck while we’re doing it.

Taking discoveries from the lab to the global marketplace can be difficult, but this type of story is familiar to the MacDiarmid Institute – it’s part of our DNA. We’ve come to understand innovation pathways, and are especially well-placed to identify and support the early pipeline ‘twinkles in the eye’ of researchers and entrepreneurs. With 16 spinouts from our researchers, we’re fulfilling the vision of our founder Sir Paul Callaghan that the face of the New Zealand economy can be changed through invention and manufacture of high-value products and IP, which can then be exported and leveraged globally. Our graduates are tech-savvy, socially aware, and ready to lead a new wave of progress at this essential moment.

Some may argue that New Zealand should not strive for leadership in this area; that in a globally competitive race, we lack the scale to compete and would be better off focusing adoption of technologies developed elsewhere. However, in many cases our scientists are filing patents and attracting investors, so we know that the research is already world-leading – and we can’t adopt a technology if we don’t foster the research base that develops the relevant expertise in-country. Moreover, several key sustainability issues are local in nature, with fresh water quality perhaps the most striking example. We can also achieve scale by working together through initiatives such as Taranaki’s National New Energy Development Centre.

But most of all, we should not need to be reminded that every global New Zealand success story – ever – has held on to their aspirations in the face of challenges of scale.

The MacDiarmid Institute is the sponsor of The Spinoff’s science section. 

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