Energy Solutions Inspired by Nature

During the last decade society demanded to energy providers solutions on production and storage of alternative/green fuels. The market calls for new upstream technological innovations to respond sustainably, efficiently and safely to current and future energy needs. For this reason, most of companies decided to dedicate their R&D departments to find achievable solutions to these societal demands.

(Universitat Rovira i Virgili) – As a fruit of this huge effort there are some batteries on the market. However, they have already some drawbacks, such as: low durability in energy storage, high price of acquisition and maintenance, and oversize. Moreover, most of them also contain some environmentally-unfriendly components (i.e. lithium, lead and other heavy metals) difficult to be recycled in a short-term. All these mentioned disadvantages make them unattractive and limit their world-wide use in a sustainable mode.

Artificial photosynthesis interests scientists from all backgrounds, providing the possibilities to mimic nature on the premise of precise design and functionality of materials. This approach appears as a source of sustainable fuels for instance hydrogen and methanol. When it is combined with a fuel cell (FC), converting energy of chemical bonds into electricity, it presents practical access to power locked into solar radiation. An essential element of artificial synthesis systems and polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell is a proton exchange membrane that influences the performance, the selectivity and the durability of the system. Predominantly Nafion® has been used in such systems considering various properties such as high proton conductivity and good mechanical properties. However, the existence of serious drawbacks, for example water dependent transport and methanol crossover, shifts the attention towards bioinspired materials [1].

Aligned with market demands, the current research interest of Meteor research group based at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili as well as Centre Tecnològic de la Química de Catalunya, Tarragona, Spain is focusing on new generation of Proton Exchange Membranes (PEM) and CO2 absorption membranes, in order to fill in the gap and provides a clean energy solution applying the technology inspired by nature.

The PEM research line is orientated to obtain a new membrane that could be an alternative to commercially available materials. Our group has worked on bio-inspired liquid crystalline dendronized polyamines and polyethers [2, 3]. These polymers were designed to self-assemble into columns, which were subsequently aligned perpendicularly to a substrate by applying a thermal treatment and worked as ion channels, where proton transport can occur without the need of water. Results gained under Selective Membranes for Energy Systems project, financed by Spanish government, showed that the membranes prepared out of these polymers exhibit satisfactory proton transport with remarkable selectivity, neglectable water uptake and reduced methanol permeability [1, 4-7]

Besides, our group has developed novel membrane based on conjugation of artificial polymer and biological ion channel. This membrane has tremendous potential to be used for ion transport in fuel cell applications. It combines mechanical and chemical resistance of polysulfone and outstanding fast proton transport and selective properties of Gramicidin. Moreover, additional use of magnetic nanoparticles, characterized by good thermal and chemical stability, mechanical hardness and low electrical losses, enhances electrochemical qualities of the material and widens its applications range such as energy storage and conversion, nanofiltration or analytics.

Regarding to the CO2 absorption, the group has been working with a polysulfone membrane contactor and the preliminary data show good absorption rates by playing with the internal morphology of the membrane. The absorbing solution and the active CO2 components fixed at the external face of the membrane show that they can act as artificial leaves and stomatta’s. Very recently we filled-in a patent application, where we protect a breakthrough CO2 membrane which achieves capture rates of 70-90 g atmospheric CO2·m2/h at pH 8-10 which can be transformed into methanol and then in energy [8].

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If you have any question regarding our research lines please do not hesitate to contact us by email: marta.giamberini@urv.cat ricard.garcia@urv.cat bartosz.tylkowski@ctqc.org

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