When it comes to climate action, sometimes you have to go to the fundamentals. That’s why AMBER, SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research is focusing on the materials we make. Plastics are an obvious focus, but there are many other ways that being smart about how we make and use materials, such as using carbon dioxide to make pharmaceuticals or even coffee beans to power batteries.
“For sustainability, the whole point is to use the minimum number of resources, and to use natural resources in clever ways,” explains Professor Justin Holmes, who leads the sustainability stream in the second phase of the centre, AMBER 2, which is jointly hosted in Trinity College Dublin by CRANN and the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering in collaboration with the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
Plastic has, understandably, become a focal point for consumers taking action, and for AMBER the goal is to get more out of existing plastic by recycling it smartly. “Plastic is a valuable resource, it is oil in another form,” says Professor Holmes. “If we can take plastic that has already been made and use it to regenerate new materials, then we use fewer resources and we keep oil in the ground.”
Carbon, too, is a key target for addressing climate change, and AMBER wants to use carbon in chemical processes. “We have researchers looking at how we could use carbon dioxide in the place of solvents when making pharmaceutical products,” says Professor Holmes, who is Professor of Nanochemistry in the School of Chemistry at University College Cork.
Carbon dioxide may also be used when making fuels, and AMBER research is exploring this and other sustainable energy sources such as splitting water to generate hydrogen - something that plants do on a large scale all the time but humans have yet to efficiently master in the lab.
Even the humble battery is getting a material makeover at AMBER: researchers are using new materials, nanomaterials and elements to build powerful and sustainable batteries, with an eye to using materials of abundance, notes Professor Holmes.
“Some materials that are used for energy storage are becoming scarce, and this can lead to problems, especially when the materials are mined in areas of conflict and so can be hard to access,” he says. “We are seeing if we can reuse some of those materials, and we are looking at other sources that are abundant. One of our projects is testing out using coffee beans – a source of carbon – in batteries.”
One of the keys to success is having people from different disciplines and backgrounds working together at AMBER, he adds. “Materials are complex, and to solve the problems we are looking to solve we need biologists and chemists, physicists and engineers, everyone comes to it from different backgrounds.”