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MIT-led teams win National Science Foundation grants to research sustainable materials

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Three MIT-led teams are among 16 nationwide to receive funding awards to address sustainable materials for global challenges through the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling societal or scientific challenges at an accelerated pace, by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach. “Solutions for today’s national-scale societal challenges are hard to solve within a single discipline. Instead, these challenges require convergence to merge ideas, approaches, and technologies from a wide range of diverse sectors, disciplines, and experts,” the NSF explains in its description of the Convergence Accelerator program. Phase 1 of the award involves planning to expand initial concepts, identify new team members, participate in an NSF development curriculum, and create an early prototype. Sustainable microchips One of the funded projects, “Building a Sustainable, Innovative Ecosystem for Microchip Manufacturing,” will be led by Anuradha Murthy Agarwal, a principal research scientist at the MIT Materials Research Laboratory. The aim of this project is to help transition the manufacturing of microchips to more sustainable processes that, for example, can reduce e-waste landfills by allowing repair of chips, or enable users to swap out a rogue chip in a motherboard rather than tossing out the entire laptop or cellphone. “Our goal is to help transition microchip manufacturing towards a sustainable industry,” says Agarwal. “We aim to do that by partnering with industry in a multimodal approach that prototypes technology designs to minimize energy consumption and waste generation, retrains the semiconductor workforce, and creates a roadmap for a new industrial ecology to mitigate materials-critical limitations and supply-chain constraints.” Agarwal’s co-principal investigators are Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University, and two MIT faculty affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory: Juejun Hu, the John Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; and Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. The training component of the project will also create curricula for multiple audiences. “At Bridgewater State University, we will create a new undergraduate course on microchip manufacturing sustainability, and eventually adapt it for audiences from K-12, as well as incumbent employees,” says Serna. Sajan Saini and Erik Verlage of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), and Randolph Kirchain from the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, who have led MIT initiatives in virtual reality digital education, materials criticality, and roadmapping, are key contributors. The project also includes DMSE graduate students Drew Weninger and Luigi Ranno, and undergraduate Samuel Bechtold from Bridgewater State University’s Department of Physics. Sustainable topological materials Under the direction of Mingda Li, the Class of 1947 Career Development Professor and an Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, the “Sustainable Topological Energy Materials (STEM) for Energy-efficient Applications” project will accelerate research in sustainable topological quantum materials. Topological materials are ones that retain a particular property through all external disturbances. Such materials could potentially be a boon for quantum computing, which has so far been plagued by instability, and would usher in a post-silicon era for microelectronics. Even better, says Li, topological materials can do their job without dissipating energy even at room temperatures. Topological materials can find a variety of applications in quantum computing, energy harvesting, and microelectronics. Despite their promise, and a few thousands of potential candidates, discovering and mass production of these materials has been challenging. Topology itself is not a measurable characteristic so researchers have to first develop ways to find hints of it. Synthesis of materials and related process optimization can take months, if not years, Li adds. Machine learning can accelerate the discovery and vetting stage. Given that a best-in-class topological quantum material has the potential to disrupt the semiconductor and computing industries, Li and team are paying special attention to the environmental sustainability of prospective materials. For example, some potential candidates include gold, lead, or cadmium, whose scarcity or toxicity does not lend itself to mass production and have been disqualified. Co-principal investigators on the project include Liang Fu, associate professor of physics at MIT; Tomas Palacios, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories; Susanne Stemmer of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Qiong Ma of Boston College. The $750,000 one-year Phase 1 grant will focus on three priorities: building a topological materials database; identifying the most environmentally sustainable candidates for energy-efficient topological applications; and building the foundation for a Center for Sustainable Topological Energy Materials at MIT that will encourage industry-academia collaborations. At a time when the size of silicon-based electronic circuit boards is reaching its lower limit, the promise of topological materials whose conductivity increases with decreasing size, is especially attractive, Li says. In addition, topological materials can harvest wasted heat: Imagine using your body heat to power your phone. “There are different types of application scenarios, and we can go much beyond the capabilities of existing materials,” Li says, “the possibilities of topological materials are endlessly exciting.” Socioresilient materials design Researchers in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) have been awarded a $750,000 in a cross-disciplinary project that aims to fundamentally redirect materials research and development toward more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and resilient materials. This “socioresilient materials design” will serve as the foundation for a new research and development framework that takes into account technical, environmental, and social factors from the beginning of the materials design and development process. Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Ellan Spero PhD ’14, an instructor in DMSE, are leading this research effort, which includes Cornell University, the University of Swansea, Citrine Informatics, Station1, and 14 other organizations in academia, industry, venture capital, the social sector, government, and philanthropy. The team’s project, “Mind Over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design,” emphasizes that circular design approaches, which aim to minimize waste and maximize the reuse, repair, and recycling of materials, are often insufficient to address negative repercussions for the planet and for human health and safety. Too often society understands the unintended negative consequences long after the materials that make up our homes and cities and systems have been in production and use for many years. Examples include disparate and negative public health impacts due to industrial scale manufacturing of materials, water and air contamination with harmful materials, and increased risk of fire in lower-income housing buildings due to flawed materials usage and design. Adverse climate events including drought, flood, extreme temperatures, and hurricanes have accelerated materials degradation, for example in critical infrastructure, leading to amplified environmental damage and social injustice. While classical materials design and selection approaches are insufficient to address these challenges, the new research project aims to do just that. “The imagination and technical expertise that goes into materials design is too often separated from the environmental and social realities of extraction, manufacturing, and end-of-life for materials,” says Ortiz.  Drawing on materials science and engineering, chemistry, and computer science, the project will develop a framework for materials design and development. It will incorporate powerful computational capabilities — artificial intelligence and machine learning with physics-based materials models — plus rigorous methodologies from the social sciences and the humanities to understand what impacts any new material put into production could have on society.

The teams will work toward sustainable microchips and topological materials as well as socioresilient materials design.

Three MIT-led teams are among 16 nationwide to receive funding awards to address sustainable materials for global challenges through the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program. Launched in 2019, the program targets solutions to especially compelling societal or scientific challenges at an accelerated pace, by incorporating a multidisciplinary research approach.

“Solutions for today’s national-scale societal challenges are hard to solve within a single discipline. Instead, these challenges require convergence to merge ideas, approaches, and technologies from a wide range of diverse sectors, disciplines, and experts,” the NSF explains in its description of the Convergence Accelerator program. Phase 1 of the award involves planning to expand initial concepts, identify new team members, participate in an NSF development curriculum, and create an early prototype.

Sustainable microchips

One of the funded projects, “Building a Sustainable, Innovative Ecosystem for Microchip Manufacturing,” will be led by Anuradha Murthy Agarwal, a principal research scientist at the MIT Materials Research Laboratory. The aim of this project is to help transition the manufacturing of microchips to more sustainable processes that, for example, can reduce e-waste landfills by allowing repair of chips, or enable users to swap out a rogue chip in a motherboard rather than tossing out the entire laptop or cellphone.

“Our goal is to help transition microchip manufacturing towards a sustainable industry,” says Agarwal. “We aim to do that by partnering with industry in a multimodal approach that prototypes technology designs to minimize energy consumption and waste generation, retrains the semiconductor workforce, and creates a roadmap for a new industrial ecology to mitigate materials-critical limitations and supply-chain constraints.”

Agarwal’s co-principal investigators are Samuel Serna, an MIT visiting professor and assistant professor of physics at Bridgewater State University, and two MIT faculty affiliated with the Materials Research Laboratory: Juejun Hu, the John Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering; and Lionel Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

The training component of the project will also create curricula for multiple audiences. “At Bridgewater State University, we will create a new undergraduate course on microchip manufacturing sustainability, and eventually adapt it for audiences from K-12, as well as incumbent employees,” says Serna.

Sajan Saini and Erik Verlage of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), and Randolph Kirchain from the MIT Materials Systems Laboratory, who have led MIT initiatives in virtual reality digital education, materials criticality, and roadmapping, are key contributors. The project also includes DMSE graduate students Drew Weninger and Luigi Ranno, and undergraduate Samuel Bechtold from Bridgewater State University’s Department of Physics.

Sustainable topological materials

Under the direction of Mingda Li, the Class of 1947 Career Development Professor and an Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, the “Sustainable Topological Energy Materials (STEM) for Energy-efficient Applications” project will accelerate research in sustainable topological quantum materials.

Topological materials are ones that retain a particular property through all external disturbances. Such materials could potentially be a boon for quantum computing, which has so far been plagued by instability, and would usher in a post-silicon era for microelectronics. Even better, says Li, topological materials can do their job without dissipating energy even at room temperatures.

Topological materials can find a variety of applications in quantum computing, energy harvesting, and microelectronics. Despite their promise, and a few thousands of potential candidates, discovering and mass production of these materials has been challenging. Topology itself is not a measurable characteristic so researchers have to first develop ways to find hints of it. Synthesis of materials and related process optimization can take months, if not years, Li adds. Machine learning can accelerate the discovery and vetting stage.

Given that a best-in-class topological quantum material has the potential to disrupt the semiconductor and computing industries, Li and team are paying special attention to the environmental sustainability of prospective materials. For example, some potential candidates include gold, lead, or cadmium, whose scarcity or toxicity does not lend itself to mass production and have been disqualified.

Co-principal investigators on the project include Liang Fu, associate professor of physics at MIT; Tomas Palacios, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories; Susanne Stemmer of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Qiong Ma of Boston College. The $750,000 one-year Phase 1 grant will focus on three priorities: building a topological materials database; identifying the most environmentally sustainable candidates for energy-efficient topological applications; and building the foundation for a Center for Sustainable Topological Energy Materials at MIT that will encourage industry-academia collaborations.

At a time when the size of silicon-based electronic circuit boards is reaching its lower limit, the promise of topological materials whose conductivity increases with decreasing size, is especially attractive, Li says. In addition, topological materials can harvest wasted heat: Imagine using your body heat to power your phone. “There are different types of application scenarios, and we can go much beyond the capabilities of existing materials,” Li says, “the possibilities of topological materials are endlessly exciting.”

Socioresilient materials design

Researchers in the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) have been awarded a $750,000 in a cross-disciplinary project that aims to fundamentally redirect materials research and development toward more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable and resilient materials. This “socioresilient materials design” will serve as the foundation for a new research and development framework that takes into account technical, environmental, and social factors from the beginning of the materials design and development process.

Christine Ortiz, the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and Ellan Spero PhD ’14, an instructor in DMSE, are leading this research effort, which includes Cornell University, the University of Swansea, Citrine Informatics, Station1, and 14 other organizations in academia, industry, venture capital, the social sector, government, and philanthropy.

The team’s project, “Mind Over Matter: Socioresilient Materials Design,” emphasizes that circular design approaches, which aim to minimize waste and maximize the reuse, repair, and recycling of materials, are often insufficient to address negative repercussions for the planet and for human health and safety.

Too often society understands the unintended negative consequences long after the materials that make up our homes and cities and systems have been in production and use for many years. Examples include disparate and negative public health impacts due to industrial scale manufacturing of materials, water and air contamination with harmful materials, and increased risk of fire in lower-income housing buildings due to flawed materials usage and design. Adverse climate events including drought, flood, extreme temperatures, and hurricanes have accelerated materials degradation, for example in critical infrastructure, leading to amplified environmental damage and social injustice. While classical materials design and selection approaches are insufficient to address these challenges, the new research project aims to do just that.

“The imagination and technical expertise that goes into materials design is too often separated from the environmental and social realities of extraction, manufacturing, and end-of-life for materials,” says Ortiz. 

Drawing on materials science and engineering, chemistry, and computer science, the project will develop a framework for materials design and development. It will incorporate powerful computational capabilities — artificial intelligence and machine learning with physics-based materials models — plus rigorous methodologies from the social sciences and the humanities to understand what impacts any new material put into production could have on society.

Read the full story here.
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Building activity produces 18% of emissions and a shocking 40% of our landfill waste. We must move to a circular economy – here’s how

Our buildings and infrastructure can only become sustainable if the sector shares, leases, reuses, repairs, refurbishes and recycles materials and products. A new report maps out out how to get there.

ShutterstockArchitecture, engineering and construction employ 1.2 million people in Australia and account for 9% of GDP. But our biggest services sector also produces roughly 40% of landfill waste and accounts for 18.1% of Australia’s carbon footprint. The sector must change its practices fast for Australia to meet its commitments to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement. A circular economic model can help solve the environmental challenges created by our built environment – water, waste and power systems, transport infrastructure and the buildings we live and work in. A circular economy involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling materials and products for as long as possible. Circular economy principles have gained recognition from all levels of government in Australia. But there’s a big gap between acknowledgement and action. Progress towards systemic change has been very limited. A new report by university and industry experts lays out a roadmap to a circular economy. Those working in the sector reported the top three barriers as: a lack of incentives, a lack of specific regulations, and a lack of knowledge. The top three enablers were: research and development of enabling technologies, education of stakeholders, and evidence of the circular economy’s added value. Read more: Australia needs construction waste recycling plants — but locals first need to be won over The huge amount of waste created by building construction and demolition makes the industry unsustainable. So what are the world leaders doing? Extensive research for the report drew on real-world experiences, including a survey and interviews with stakeholders. The report offers practical recommendations to drive the transformation to a circular economy, with examples from global front-runners. The first recommendation is to learn from these nations. Most are in Europe. A leading example is the Netherlands’ “Cirkelstad”. This national platform connects key players in the transition to a circular economy in major cities. It provides a database of exemplary projects, research and policies, as well as training and advice. Cirkelstad highlights the importance of broad collaboration, including research organisations. One outcome is the City Deal initiative. It has brought together more than 100 stakeholders with the shared goal of making circular construction the norm. They include government bodies, contractors, housing associations, clients, networks, interest groups and knowledge institutions. Read more: Buildings used iron from sunken ships centuries ago. The use of recycled materials should be business as usual by now We rarely see such collaboration in Australia. Connections between government, research and industry practices have been weak. Our universities compete fiercely. In Denmark and Sweden, rigorous regulations have been effective in promoting circular practices. Denmark has incentives for the use of secondary materials such as recycled brick. It also promotes designs that make buildings easy to disassemble. In Sweden, contractors must give priority to using secondary materials in public projects. Suppliers are evaluated based on their environmental impacts Read more: A third of our waste comes from buildings. This one's designed for reuse and cuts emissions by 88% In Canada, Toronto is notable for its proactive approach. Measures include a cap on upfront carbon emissions for all new city-owned buildings. Test beds and pilot projects have proven effective, too. A good example is the UK’s Waste House. Waste House was built using more than 85% waste material from households and construction sites. Yet it’s a top-rated low-energy building. The project is an inspiration for architects and builders to challenge conventional construction methods and embrace circular practices. Much of the focus of Finland’s circular economy initiatives is on construction and urban planning. Various policy tools and incentives encourage the use of recycled or renewable materials in construction. The renovation of Laakso hospital in Helsinki is a notable example. Strategic zoning of public spaces can also be used to bolster circular economy activities. An example is the repurposing of urban land for activities such as waste sorting. Read more: How to make roads with recycled waste, and pave the way to a circular economy The Brighton Waste House was made largely from recycled materials. How can Australia create a circular economy? Australia has been slow to adopt such measures. There are voluntary schemes, such as Green Star, that include emission caps for buildings. However, Australia lacks specific, well-defined requirements to adopt circular economy practices across the built environment sector. Our report’s recommendations include: develop metrics and targets to promote resource efficiency adopt measurable circular procurement practices for public projects provide incentives for circular practices establish technical codes and standards that foster the use of secondary products. Read more: Greenwashing the property market: why 'green star' ratings don't guarantee more sustainable buildings The report finds funding for collaborative projects is badly needed too. Regrettably, the Australian built environment is not seen as a research funding priority. But more funding is essential to foster the innovation needed to make the transition to a circular economy. Innovation can help us reconcile the public demand for spacious homes with sustainable construction practices. We can achieve this through a mix of strategies: moving towards modular construction techniques creating incentives to adopt circular design principles making adaptive reuse of existing structures a priority designing multi-functional spaces that makes the most of resources. Integrating circular economy principles into education and training at universities and schools can embed a culture of innovation. Equipping students with this knowledge and skills will enable the next generation to drive change in our built environment. Currently, there are few Australian-based training programs that focus on the circular economy. And available courses and programs overseas are costly. There is also a need to promote inclusivity in the built environment sector. Circular solutions must incorporate cultural considerations. By embracing the above strategies, Australia can foster a harmonious balance between cultural values, environmental sustainability and efficient resource use. Collectively, these initiatives will lay the foundation for a circular economy in the built environment sector. The growing need for housing and infrastructure underscores the urgency of achieving this goal in Australia. Ultimately, consumers, industry and the environment will all benefit. Read more: With the right tools, we can mine cities Tuba Kocaturk is affiliated with Geelong Manufacturing Council, as a Non-Executive Director.M. Reza Hosseini does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Saving humanity: here's a radical approach to building a sustainable and just society

Human civilisation is headed for collapse. Collectively, we are pushing planet Earth beyond the limits of endurance. There has to be a better way. Now a new book makes the case for systemic change.

Holli, ShutterstockCollectively we are driving Earth and civilisation towards collapse. Human activities have exceeded planetary boundaries. We are changing the climate, losing biodiversity, degrading land, contaminating freshwater, and damaging the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles upon which we all depend. We ask how this could happen. Also, why democratically elected governments ignore the wishes of the majority of their people. Why some governments continue to export fossil fuels despite commitments to climate mitigation. Why some go to war in distant lands without any debate in parliament or congress. Why some give tax cuts to the rich while those on the dole struggle below the poverty line. Book cover. Palgrave Macmillan, Author provided The answers to these questions all come down to one thing: decision-makers and influencers are captured by vested interests. That is the inconvenient truth revealed in our new book, The Path to a Sustainable Civilisation: Technological, Socioeconomic and Political Change. But these forces can be overthrown. We argue it is not sufficient for citizen organisations and governments to address specific environmental, social justice and peace issues. It’s certainly necessary, but we must also struggle for systemic change. This means challenging the covert driving forces of environmental destruction, social injustice and war, namely, “state capture” and the dominant economic system. It’s 90 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock, so there’s no time to waste. Read more: Australia has overshot three planetary boundaries based on how we use land Confronting state capture Political scientists and political economists argue governments, public servants, the media and indeed the majority of decision-makers and influencers become captured by vested interests. This is known as state capture, where state means the nation-state. The captors include fossil fuel, armaments, finance, property and gambling industries. State capture can also involve foreign governments. There is justifiable concern in Australia and elsewhere about subversion by the Chinese Communist Party. Yet there is little discussion of the fact that, since 2015, six “retired” US admirals worked for the Australian government before the AUKUS announcement on nuclear powered submarines. The forces driving the collapse of civilisation, in a nutshell. Mark Diesendorf, Author provided State capture could explain why Australia’s defence is being shifted to the South China Sea under US sovereignty. Confronting state capture involves reversing several undemocratic practices. Of particular concern is the funding of political parties by corporate interests as well as the revolving-door jobs between government and corporate interests. There is also the concentration of media ownership and the influence of so-called “think tanks” funded by vested interests. The first step is to set up coalitions or networks to oppose the power of vested interests. This would bring together diverse civil society organisations with common interests in democratic integrity and civil liberties. One example is the Australian Democracy Network, which campaigns for “changes that make our democracy more fair, open, participatory, and accountable”. The Network was founded in 2020 by the Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Social Service. Read more: A monster rally for climate change, but divergent goals hinder the fight Challenging economic ideology Conventional economic theory failed us when it came to recovery from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–09 and the COVID pandemic. Nevertheless, many governments still accept its prescriptions. The dangerous and destructive myths of conventional economics include the claims that: economic theory can treat the natural environment as an infinite resource and infinite waste dump endless economic growth on a finite planet is feasible and desirable wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor wellbeing and welfare can be measured by GDP government intervention in the market must be avoided. Although these myths have been refuted many times, even by world famous economist Joseph Stiglitz, they still determine much government policy. Australian economist Steve Keen first published Debunking economics in 2001. The financial crisis of 2007 gave him plenty of material for a revised edition in 2011. Richard Denniss gave us Econobabble: How to Decode Political Spin and Economic Nonsense in 2021. Yet, as John Quiggin so eloquently puts it, dead ideas still stalk the land (Zombie Economics. They have devastating impacts on our life support system (the biosphere) and social justice. One of the principal destroyers of our planet is excessive consumption, especially consumption by rich individuals and rich countries. Read more: Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists A more appropriate economic framework for human and planetary wellbeing is the interdisciplinary field of ecological economics. Unlike neoclassical economics, ecological economics gives priority to ecological sustainability and social justice over economic efficiency. It works towards a transition to a steady-state economy. That is, one with no global increase in the use of energy, materials and land, and no increase in population. Human activity is crossing planetary boundaries. E/MSY is Extinctions/Mammal Species Years; the biogeochemical flows beyond the safe operating limits are nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). Some sectors are not yet quantified. Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre/Stockholm University, Author provided Since planetary boundaries have already been exceeded and low-income countries must develop, social justice demands that the rich countries undergo planned degrowth. On the pathway to a sustainable civilisation, environmental protection and social justice must be addressed together. Because the rich are responsible for the biggest environmental impacts, reducing the gap between rich and poor is critical. Universal basic services such as improved public health, education, housing and transportation – and a government-funded job guarantee – can achieve greater equality and give people incentives to support the transition. Citizen action Why would governments free themselves from state capture and discard economics ideology? Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt once told a delegation: “OK, you have convinced me. Now get out there and make me do it!” In other words, pressure from voters is needed to make government action politically feasible. That’s why we need citizen-based environmental, social justice, public health and peace groups to form alliances to challenge the overarching issues of state capture and flawed economics ideology. Read more: Building the new economy: alternative strategies for the 99% Mark Diesendorf previously received funding from the Australian Research Council.

Darwin’s ‘sustainable’ Middle Arm development is key to huge fossil fuel projects, documents show

Exclusive: Middle Arm has been sold as ‘sustainable’ but papers reveal the Albanese government was briefed on the project’s links to new fossil fuel developments, including fracking in the Beetaloo basinFollow our Australia news live blog for the latest updatesGet our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcastThe proposed Middle Arm industrial development on Darwin harbour, in which the Albanese government is taking a $1.5bn stake, is “seen as a key enabler” for the export of gas from the Beetaloo basin, according to a federal government document released under freedom of information.This is despite the project being labelled a “sustainable development precinct”. Continue reading...

Exclusive: Middle Arm has been sold as ‘sustainable’ but papers reveal the Albanese government was briefed on the project’s links to new fossil fuel developments, including fracking in the Beetaloo basinFollow our Australia news live blog for the latest updatesGet our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcastThe proposed Middle Arm industrial development on Darwin harbour, in which the Albanese government is taking a $1.5bn stake, is “seen as a key enabler” for the export of gas from the Beetaloo basin, according to a federal government document released under freedom of information.This is despite the project being labelled a “sustainable development precinct”. Continue reading...

There’s a buzz about ‘sustainable’ fuels – but they won’t solve aviation's colossal climate woes

Even if the industry could make the shift, there’s not enough land or renewable energy potential on Earth to produce all the sustainable fuels airlines need.

The global airline industry is fast recovering from the unprecedented pause to flying imposed by COVID-19. In some parts of the world, such as the Middle East, airlines are even expanding rapidly – well beyond pre-pandemic levels. But how will the industry continue to grow while doing its fair share on climate change? Unless global aviation changes tack, its greenhouse gas emissions are projected to cause about 0.1℃ of total global warming by 2050. So-called “sustainable aviation fuels” are being promoted by the aviation and energy industries as the preferred solution. These fuels can be made from organic matter such as plants (also known as biomass), waste such as used cooking oil, and synthetic kerosene. However, as our new research shows, sustainable aviation fuel is not a silver bullet. Even if the industry could make the shift, there’s not enough land or renewable energy potential on Earth to produce all the sustainable fuels airlines need. There’s not enough land to produce all the sustainable fuels airlines need. Shutterstock A tough ask In 2021, the International Air Transport Association released a plan for airlines to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. Individual airlines have made similar commitments, including American Airlines, Qantas and Air New Zealand. But there are very few low-carbon alternatives to traditional fossil jet fuel. That makes reducing emissions from the aviation sector extremely difficult. Two options – batteries and liquid hydrogen – face significant challenges. For example, neither are suitable for long-haul flights. That’s why industry is turning to sustainable aviation fuels. These fuels effectively perform in the same way as their fossil fuel-derived counterparts. They are suitable for long flights and can be used in existing planes so airlines wouldn’t have to replace whole fleets. But at the moment, very little sustainable aviation fuel is being produced – and it’s much more expensive than fossil jet fuel. Sustainable aviation fuel also raises serious environmental concerns. So is the transition actually feasible? Our new research set out to answer this question. Read more: Green hydrogen funding is a step forward – but a step doesn't win the race What we found Our study involved analysing 12 “roadmaps” or plans for decarbonising the global aviation industry. They were published by the industry, outside organisations and academics. We found the plans rely heavily on biofuels in the medium-term and synthetic e-kerosene in the longer term. Currently, all sustainable aviation fuels used commercially are produced from food waste such as cooking oil or animal fat. Energy crops (such as soy and willow), agricultural residues (husks, bagasse), and forest biomass (such as logging residue and manufacturing waste) provide larger volumes of raw materials, but chemical engineering processes to turn them into fuel are still developing. If e-kerosene is to be produced cleanly, it requires electricity produced from renewable energy sources to “split” the water (a process called electrolysis) and produce hydrogen. This hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide. Our research found the roadmaps largely omitted a number of fundamental problems with sustainable aviation fuels. The first is the huge amount of biomass and clean energy needed. On average across the roadmaps, producing sustainable aviation fuels would require about 9% of global renewable electricity and 30% of available biomass in 2050. Even then, about 30% of fuel used by airlines in 2050 would be fossil-derived. Read more: The future of flight in a net-zero-carbon world: 9 scenarios, lots of sustainable aviation fuel Producing sustainable aviation fuels would require about 9% of global renewable electricity. Shutterstock Other industries also use biomass resources. For example, the cosmetics industry uses tallow in skincare products. Bagasse – the pulp left after sugar cane juice is extracted – is used for heat in sugar mills. So demand for sustainable aviation fuels risks displacing other industries. Second, the process of converting raw materials into sustainable aviation fuels leads to a major loss of energy, in the form of heat. In the case of e-kerosene, only about 15% of the primary renewable electricity remains to power the aircraft. Not only is this inefficient, it leaves less clean energy for other industries wanting to decarbonise. Third, producing sustainable aviation fuels creates greenhouse gas emissions. Growing bio-crops, for instance, requires the use of emissions-intensive fertiliser, harvest machinery and transport. And already, vast tracts of rainforest are being razed to make way for crops used in biofuels. If sustainable aviation fuels were produced in this way, they’d be considerably worse for the climate than fossil fuels. Finally, carbon dioxide is not the only aviation emission that contributes to climate change. Others include nitrogen oxides, water vapour and soot. Research to date is inconclusive about whether sustainable aviation fuels will improve this problem. Native vegetation is being destroyed tomato way for biofuel crops. Pictured, a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Karen Michelmore/AAP ‘Unrealistic and irresponsible’ The above is not an exhaustive list of the potential climate damage caused by sustainable aviation fuels. But clearly, while the fuels will play a useful role to some extent, the industry’s growth plans are unrealistic and irresponsible. Private and government investment should instead be directed to lower-carbon forms of transport, such as rail. And for the travelling public, a shift in mindset is required, involving how often and how far we need to travel. Aviation is not the only industry that must rapidly decarbonise in coming decades. The whole global energy system needs to transition. That means airlines must not take more than their fair share of finite resources to claim the label of “sustainable”. Read more: Tourism desperately wants a return to the 'old normal' but that would be a disaster Susanne Becken currently receives funding from the Australian Research Council, Green Growth and Travelism, and the UNWTO. She is a member of the Air New Zealand Sustainability Advisory Panel and member of the Independent Advisory Group of Travalyst. David Simon Lee receives funding from the UK Department for Transport, the UKRI (Aerospace Technology Institute) and the EU H2020 research scheme. He is a member of the UK Jet Zero Council and a co-rapporteur of the International Civil Aviation Organization's Impacts and Science Group, and a Member of the UK Civil Aviation Authority's Environmental Sustainability Panel. Brendan Mackey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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