Developing energy technology for a green future: Q&A with expert Drew Higgins

Wind turbines in a field

Looming climate goals and the swelling demand for renewable energy mean advancements in the creation and storage of low-carbon electricity are more critical than ever.

Earlier this week, Alberta unveiled a climate plan pledging to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target that brings the province in line with the federal government’s national goal.

But this year’s federal budget projects Canadian demand for electricity will double by that date, due to increasing electric vehicle use and energy-intensive industries switching from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.

The swelling demand for renewable energy and the looming net-zero deadline mean that advancements in the creation and storage of low-carbon electricity are more critical than ever.

In his lab at McMaster University, Drew Higgins, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, and his team are working to address those challenges – designing new batteries to store solar and wind energy, creating emission-conversion technology that uses electricity to convert CO2 into useful fuels and chemicals, and pursuing other advancements to improve the supply of clean energy.

Brighter World visited the lab to ask Higgins about this work.

What are some of the highlights of your team’s research?

Our group here works on electrochemical energy conversion and storage technologies, and that’s a mouthful. But essentially, we work on ways to store electricity in a battery or using fuels and chemicals to generate electricity, like in a hydrogen fuel cell to drive your vehicle, for example.

Ideally, what we’re trying to do is to find ways to use renewable electricity to power all the things that society needs – producing fuels, chemicals, and fertilizers.

How are batteries going to help expand the capacity for renewable energy?

We have a project developing rechargeable zinc-ion batteries in collaboration with a company called Salient Energy, based on the east coast of Canada. We’re developing new materials we can integrate into these rechargeable zinc-ion batteries to overcome some of the performance limitations the batteries are experiencing, because we want to use them to store renewable energy.

Things like wind and solar are great – they don’t produce carbon emissions when they’re generating electricity – but they’re intermittent or variable in nature because the sun is not always shining, and the wind is not always blowing. We need ways to store that electricity while it’s being generated in the form of a battery for use when we need it later.

For example, at noon in June, you’d store the solar energy that’s being produced in a battery, and then use it at night when you go home and need to cook dinner for your family.

How far away are technologies like the zinc-ion batteries you’re developing from being widely used?

We’ve had some very promising results with the battery project. We’re focussing on a battery that fits in our hands – a test prototype battery. If we can get that to work very well, we’ll work to build a bigger battery that will maybe sit on a tabletop. If we can get that to work very well, we can work on a larger one we can eventually introduce to the company to duplicate them for use at wind farms or solar farms, for example.

Zinc-ion batteries are starting to be manufactured now for commercial-scale demonstrations, but here at McMaster we’re focused on developing the technology and building small-scale prototype devices. Once we have some successes, we’ll work with industry so they can scale them up for the betterment of the world.

What is your team working on to reduce emissions from non-renewable energy sources?

We’re working on a project where we’re electro-chemically converting carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals, so you can almost look at it as carbon recycling. Taking carbon dioxide emissions and converting them back into less harmful fuels or chemicals that meet societal needs.

We’ve had some successes. Sometimes it feels slow, but then you look back over the past few years and see what we’ve been able to demonstrate. We have a lab-scale prototype device that sits in the palm of your hand.

I think in a couple more years, that’s when we’ll really be able to pass these technologies off to industry to scale up and to implement out in the field.

How could carbon dioxide recycling like that help bring down Canada’s emissions?

in Canada, we’re in a situation where our electricity supply is actually low in carbon intensity, which means we have low CO2 emissions for every megawatt of energy that we produce compared to the global average. At the same time, we also have very high CO2 emissions per capita.

The amount of CO2 emissions in Canada is astronomical. We’re one of the biggest emitters in the world when we look on a per-capita basis. It’s kind of strange that we have very clean electricity, but a lot of CO2 emissions. And that’s where carbon recycling can really come in handy.

We can take that renewable electricity and use it to convert our carbon dioxide emissions into fuels and chemicals that can be used for a variety of different processes. Something like ethylene can then be converted into polyethylene and then into plastics. We’ll have taken CO2 emissions, avoided their release into the atmosphere and made a plastic that people can use and put into commercial products.

How is working in your lab preparing students to work in the industry after they leave McMaster?

The students in our lab get a lot of technical skills in terms of synthesizing nano materials – materials that have structures you can’t see with your eye. Students synthesize new nano materials, characterize them to understand what their structures and properties are, and test the nano materials towards a particular application, whether it’s a battery or carbon dioxide recycling.

The other thing they’re developing are what we call durable skills. Our projects are mostly in collaboration with industry, so students get experience presenting to company partners, organizing projects, and writing peer-reviewed manuscripts. It’s the full breadth of professional experience as well as the technical expertise that comes with laboratory-based research.

This area of research is super exciting. I think these technologies that can use renewable electricity to meet the needs of modern society without relying on fossil fuels are incredibly important. I’m super excited about our work, but it’s the students and the postdocs who are in the lab doing the hard work pushing these things forward.

They’re the ones making the difference, who will go out and do incredible things that are going to be important for achieving a sustainable energy economy that our world desperately needs.

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