By Michael Klein, The University of Texas at Austin, Electrochemical Energy Laboratory and MRS Student Chapter
This month’s recently released Energy Quarterly from the June MRS Bulletin features four article touching on a variety of energy topics ranging from the history of the Haber-Bosch process to India’s progress in harnessing a thorium nuclear fuel cycle.
In a brief editorial, Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology looks at the research and industrial advances that led to the synthetic production of ammonia, one of the key scientific problems of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The success of the Haber-Bosch process is one of the great examples of scientific breakthroughs transferring from university labs to industry and having a material impact on the world. Professor Hosono wants us to be inspired by this remarkable achievement and see similar progress occur in solving the current materials problems that could revolutionize the energy picture.
The energy sector analysis by Melissae Fellet discusses materials research as it relates to the hydraulic fracturing process. The article starts with a nice concise overview of the process by which ‘fracking’ is used to extract oil from unconventional wells. She then segues to a look at the various ways materials research can influence improvements in the fracturing process. For instance, hydraulic fracturing would benefit from the development of highly crush-resistant fine particles for deep wells; improved understanding of crack propagation and fracture networks in brittle materials; new research into gas transport in shales; and the development of imaging techniques that provider finer resolution of fracture networks.
Steve Yalisove and Judy Meiksin interview Jay Whitacre, Carnegie Mellon University professor and founder and CTO of sodium-ion battery start-up Aquion Energy. In the interview, Professor Whitacre discusses how he approaches the seemingly dual responsibilities of his university and entrepreneurial endeavors, and the genesis of his interest in aqueous electrolytes/sodium-ion batteries when most contemporary battery researchers were focused on lithium ion technology. The rest of the interview focuses on his start-up, Aquion Energy. He discusses the process of raising capital and the difficulties of scaling up to high volume production (in excess of 1000 kilograms of active materials per hour).
The final article of this issue of the EQ is Prachi Patel’s look at India’s interest in using thorium to produce nuclear power. Thorium has long been considered as a nuclear fuel, and has many appealing properties in comparison to fissile uranium, including ease of handling and operation, limited proliferation concerns, and less long-lived radioactive waste. India’s need for massive increases in power generation as it seeks complete electrification of the country, combined with its enormous thorium reserves, has it looking to thorium as India’s fuel of the future. While many thorium research programs focus on passively safe liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs), India has pursued a strategy to produce heavy water reactors that more closely resemble existing nuclear plants as a way to leverage its experience operating ‘traditional’ uranium reactors. Using thorium is not without technical challenges, as India is working to efficiently produce the uranium and plutonium needed as the driver fuel that renders thorium fissile. Additionally, an efficient closed thorium fuel cycle requires tricky separation of thorium, uranium, and plutonium streams in order to recycle unused fuel. While India is working to address the lack of sufficiently advanced reprocessing technology, it remains optimistic that it will have a pilot reactor up and running in the next ten years.