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ICMAB at CSIC INVESTIGA: Energy Research pushing for energy transition

A collection of articles on the research that determines a technological energy transition features the research of ICMAB Researchers.

Jan 27, 2022
The solar panels at the top of the ICMAB building. / ICMAB

It is clear we need to become less dependent on fossil fuels, and many of the CSIC Research Centers are working to accelerate the push towards a safer and greener energetic model that is based on renewable energies.

CSIC Investiga is a magazine published twice a year and edited by the Communication Department at CSIC. Every new issue covers a new topic of social relevance. The latest issue delves into the research done in the pursue of a technological energy transition through research in solar energy, geotermic energy, nuclear fusion, new storage technologies, industrial electrification, carbon capture and reusability, and more efficient hydrogen capture methods.

At ICMAB, many Research Groups are working on this energy transition as part of two of our main Research Lines that focus on sustainable energy conversion and storage, and on the use of superconducting materials for emerging technologies. In the latest issue of CSIC Investiga, some of this work is being highlighted in four of the articles:

Researcher Alexandre Ponrouch at a lab, managing some equipment while wearing a labcoat and gloves.

Alexandre Ponrouch / ICMAB

Towards a clean, safe and efficient energy

Spain is currently highly dependable on fossil fuel for energetic needs, with two thirds of all energy consumed proceeding from these sources. In the article “Hacia una energía limpia, segura y eficiente” (Towards a clean, safe and efficent energy), ICMAB Deputy Director and Researcher of the Solid State Chemistry (SSC) Group M. Rosa Palacín talks about one of the key challenges to achieve a higher degree of independence from fossil fuels: storage.

As she indicates on the article, optimizing the development of energy storage systems into environmentally friendly, robust and low cost solutions could help reduce dependency from fossil fuels in both the national and European scales. The CSIC Research Centers in the field of Material Science are working on many storage typologies, particularly chemical and electrochemical batteries, to push their TRL forward and get these technologies ready for use.

Part of the research on making storage solutions that are not environmentally damaging is reducing our use of limited resources. In the case of batteries, there is a clear scarcity of a particular element, lithium, which makes its mining ecologically damaging and also progressively more expensive. In response, the Solid State Chemistry Group is working on alternatives based in other elements, like calcium and magnesium.

As we can see in the article “Metales abundantes desafían al litio, rey del almacenamiento de energía eléctrica” (Abundant metals are challenging lithium, the king of energy storage), these elements showcase very appealing properties, like a higher energy density than lithium, which could make calcium batteries smaller and cheaper. However, there is still a long way before these batteries can become quite as powerful as lithium ones.

As Alexandre Ponrouch, also a member of the Solid State Chemistry (SSC) Group, indicates, this research is still on the initial steps and at the moment they are looking into the main challenges they can find in replicating lithium batteries and optimizing each one of the components to make batteries that powerful enough to compete with lithium ones.

Researchers Teresa Puig and Xavier Obradors at a lab, holding a long thin superconductor.

Teresa Puig and Xavier Obradors / ICMAB

Promising renewables: from atoms to the Sun, without forgetting the Earth

The article “Renovables prometedoras: del átomo al sol, sin olvidar la Tierra” (Promising renewables: from atoms to the Sun, without forgetting the Earth) identifies three areas that are fundamental for the growth of clean energies: photovoltaics, geothermics, and superconductors.

Superconductors in particular are the subject of a lot of the work done by the Superconducting Materials and Large Scale Nanostructures (SUMAN) Group at ICMAB. In this article, Teresa Puig explains the prominent role superconductors play in making the toughest part of the production of nuclear fusion possible: achieving the high temperatures necessary for the hydrogen nucleus to bond. For this to happen, the temperature in the reactor has to be close to 150 million degrees celcius, and the hydrogen has to be sustained as a plasma.

Superconducting materials are key to generate the magnetic fields required to achieve these results. The team at the SUMAN Group have developed an ultrafast methodology to produce superconducting thin films that are low cost and have high performance, a step forward towards the goal of clean nuclear fusion, which estimations place as a potential reality by 2030, according to ICMAB Director and member of the Superconducting Materials and Large Scale Nanostructures (SUMAN) Group, Xavier Obradors.

Another useful application for semiconductors is in the electrification of the industry, the process of substituting old technologies and methods that require fossil fuels for new ones that are based around cleaner energies from renewable sources. A main hurdle in this paradigmatic change is the requirement of a solid distribution network that is flexible, efficient and stable.

Superconductors are an interesting material to use in this context; when used in cables, they allow a lossless energy transportation, since they have no resistance. The SUMAN Group has specialized on the nanometric design of High Temperature Superconductors (HTS), and they are looking into sustainable and cost effective production methods for this technology, to make this lossless energy network a reality in the future.

Cover art for CSIC INVESTIGA: Energía, with a blue light crossing the screen

Figure: Cover of the "CSIC Investiga" magazine about energy.

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