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Research in focus as KTH research platforms share the stage at IVA 

Two women and two men standing in front of a screen on a podium.
KTH’s Materials and Energy research platforms got together to discuss the challenges of a sustainable energy transition. Photo: Fredrik Persson
Published May 29, 2023

In May, KTH’s Materials and Energy research platforms got together to discuss the challenges of a sustainable energy transition. Together with the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), a raft of outstanding research was presented in everything from catalysts to solar cells and high-voltage cables.

The Sustainable energy transition: what are the material science challenges?  seminar was held on May 11th by KTH’s Materials and Energy platforms together with IVA.

A woman in a blouse with flowers on presenting.
Tuula Teeri, CEO of IVA, welcomed everyone who participated both remotely or on site. Photo: Fredrik Persson

The day featured a programme bursting with knowledge filled with research results that could pave the way towards more sustainable energy use. Tuula Teeri, IVA President, gave a welcome address, then Jonas Weissenrieder provided an overview of KTH’s Materials Platform, and Lina Bertling Tjernberg gave an insight into KTH Energy Platform.

The “Sustainable energy transition: what are the material science challenges?” seminar was held both digitally and on site at IVA. Photo: Fredrik Persson

Urgent need for fossil-free iron

A woman with blonde hair and a dark jacket presenting on a podium.
Ulla Sandborgh, CEO of Jokkmokk Iron, opened the day. Photo: Fredrik Persson

The first speaker of the day was Ulla Sandborgh, CEO of Jokkmokk Iron, which was formed to extract iron ore in Kallak/Gállok. Obtaining the necessary permits took nine years, and now an environmental survey is being carried out in the area. The plan is to stay on the site for roughly 30 years and then completely restore it.

Sandborgh emphasised the need for fossil-free iron for the transition to a sustainable, fossil-free society. She also explained that iron mining is done in line with the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act, which is a list of critical raw materials that have a strategic role to play in the future. The EU has set targets for how much of these materials need to be extracted and processed within the EU.

The Kallak/Gállok mine will be the thirteenth in a series of Swedish mines.

New catalysis methods

The next item on the agenda was a three-part presentation. First up was Anders Nilsson, professor of photon science at Stanford University and professor of chemical physics at Stockholm University. He drew on history, particularly in the development of the methods of making fertiliser, to provide an overview of the development of different catalysis methods.

A man with blonde hair, glasses, and a blue suit.
Anders Nilsson, professor at Stanford University and Stockholm University drew on history to provide an overview of the development of different catalysis methods. Photo: Fredrik Persson

Among other topics, Nilsson touched on how large companies today such as SHELL aim to use solar cells to produce methane, for example. To realize this process, new catalysts are necessary.

Catalysis is an extremely complex process to manage because it involves hundreds of molecular states and reaction stages, as well as being highly dependent on the surfaces of constituent substances. To create better processes, new methods are needed to increase knowledge of what are the active sites and deactivation.

Nilsson’s research group has developed a way of using electron spectroscopy to demonstrate which reactions take place on the surface of different materials. This makes it easier to understand historical and new catalysis methods.

It was the turn of Joydeep Dutta, professor of functional materials at KTH, to take the stage. He emphasised the need for new catalysts and methods that produce hydrogen more efficiently than is currently the case. This is especially important to be able to manage climate change at the same time as the demand for energy is increasing around the world.

A man with dark hair, glasses, and a dark suit presenting.
Joydeep Dutta, professor of functional materials, KTH, emphasized the need for new methods that catalyze hydrogen. Photo: Fredrik Persson

A new way to split water

Dutta has developed a new technique to split water molecules without using the membranes used in existing solutions. The technology is cheaper than today’s and exhibits equivalent efficiency. The technique and materials still need to be optimised, after which it may be possible to apply it to build new catalysts with a Lego-like approach.

A man presenting in front of a big screen.
Dan Harding, professor at KTH, demonstrated a new analysis method to increase catalytic reactions. Photo: Fredrik Persson

This was followed by a presentation by Dan Harding, a professor at KTH, who spoke about his research project that aims to increase understanding of which mechanisms control catalytic reactions at the atomic level. This knowledge is important for further developing today’s catalysts in all areas.

Harding’s research group is developing an experimental technique for their studies, named Near-Ambient Pressure Velocity Map Imaging. The approach makes it possible to obtain more details about how each reaction takes place, which makes it possible to validate theoretical models and to advance to more complex systems.

People having lunch and discussing.
During the seminar, there were several opportunities to both share research challenges and make new contacts. Photo: Fredrik Persson

Extending the lifespan of the electrical grid

After lunch during which the seminar participants had the opportunity to deepen the discussion and make new contacts, there was a panel discussion. Lina Bertling Tjernberg, Professor in Power Grids at KTH, Mikael Dahlgren, Head of ABB Corporate Research, Bo Normark, Industrial Strategy Executive at EIT InnoEnergy, and Mikael Unge, Senior Principal Scientist at NKT and adjunct professor at KTH participated. 

A woman and three men discussing in a panel.
In the first panel discussion of the day, Mikael Dahlgren, head of research at ABB and Bo Normark, Industrial Strategy Executive EIT InnoEnergy participated among others. Photo: Fredrik Persson

The panel discussion was entitled “Energy efficiency for high voltage equipment and life time extension models”, and it was moderated by Ulrica Edlund, Deputy Director of KTH’s Materials Platform and Professor of Polymer Technology at KTH.

A woman with dark hair and a jacket presenting in front of a panel and an audience.
Lina Bertling Tjernberg, Professor in Power Grids at KTH and director of the Energy Platform, emphasized the role of the power grid in climate change. Photo: Fredrik Persson

Bertling Tjernberg started by underlining the electrical grid’s role in the climate transition, as well as the security aspects related to the grid. She then spoke about a report from CIRED, (the International Conference & Exhibition on Electricity Distribution), on how the existing grid can be used for longer with various methods to extend its lifespan. Something that could contribute to the more sustainable use of technology.

The report is partially based on a series of case studies intended to gather knowledge for a set of tools and strategies to extend the life of the entire electrical system. The full report will be published at the CIRED conference in Rome this June

Head of ABB Corporate Research, Mikael Dahlgren, then gave some insights into ABB’s goals for sustainable development and how to get there. Examples include using recycled materials in new electrical components, and refurbishing robots so they can continue to be used.

Dahlgren emphasised the use of life cycle analysis of products and services to lay the foundation for circular business strategies. He used electric motors as an example of where sensors are used successfully to optimise the energy consumption of motors to suit different environments and applications.

Dahlgren concluded by stressing that design plays a key role in creating the foundations of circular production.

The importance of a systems approach

Bo Normark shared his experiences of successful innovation. To create true innovation, a business needs to go one step further than its own products, he argued. He gave several examples of this where the key factor was a systems view rather than a deep dive into individual aspects of products and services.

He also spoke about the need for greater co-operation in the ongoing energy transition, in which the risks of the process are better shared between parties, and the need for realistic planning for the future, which in itself reduces the risks associated with robust change and expansion. On this point, Sweden needs to raise its voice within the EU to better influence laws and regulations, which have a key role in progress, Normark said.

Mikael Unge emphasised the role of high-voltage cables in a sustainable energy system. One of the examples he cited was the expanded production of cables in Karlskrona, home to a 200-metre-high cable tower. Unge also pointed to the importance of material development to produce cables optimised for transmitting electricity over long distances at high voltages.

Something that makes the ongoing energy transition difficult is that it has to happen so quickly, said Bertling Tjernberg. And that interconnected systems can create events and situations that are difficult to predict or simply unknown. More knowledge and technology are needed to understand challenges and shortcomings, she argued.

Dahlgren said that electricity now replaces fossil fuels to an increasingly greater extent, which drives demand for more electricity. However, existing regulations make expansion too slow and unnecessarily challenging.

New solar energy technologies

The panel discussion was followed by presentations by the two KTH professors, Licheng Sun and Liubov Belova, under the theme “Enabling technologies for solar energy”. Both were presented by Christophe Duwig, Deputy Director of KTH’s Energy Platform. 

Sun, Professor of Organic Chemistry at KTH, presented results of advances in artificial photosynthesis, a field in which researchers have constructed a molecular catalyst that oxidises water into oxygen. With the help of the technology, sunlight can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Sun also spoke about research into new ways to create more stable solar cells based on perovskite.

Professor Belova started by emphasising the need for more energy-efficient manufacturing methods for new fossil-free energy solutions. She gave an insight into research that led to a new manufacturing method for solar cells incorporating the material perovskite with the help of ink jet technology.

The method has a number of advantages, such as being fast, scalable and energy-efficient, while also being extremely efficient in terms of material consumption. In addition, it is possible to use the technology in the field, for example in disaster settings, while production is controlled remotely.

Belova also spoke about a new method for developing photocatalytic production of hydrogen using ultraporous active films. Belova’s research group is currently working with Spanish researchers to develop a lab reactor for hydrogen production.

Co-operation important to achieve progress

The day ended with a more visionary panel discussion based on the knowledge presented during the day. This discussion was attended by Annika Ramsköld, Vice President Corporate Sustainability at Vattenfall, as well as the abovementioned Joydeep Dutta and Bo Normark, chaired by Bertling Tjernberg.

Panellists agreed on the need for new materials as key technologies to be developed to manage the energy transition and increasing electricity production. Normark emphasised the need for a common vision to lead the development of new and cheaper materials. 

He pointed to how new start-up businesses can be an effective link in the chain between society, the market, larger businesses, and academia. The need for closer co-operation between all actors was raised by several of the panellists. 

Ramsköld pointed to the benefits of working more collaboratively, while there is a need to better define goals and needs. She also highlighted the importance of showing more concretely how new materials are constantly being used, and used wind turbine towers as an example that today can be built in wood. Setting good examples encourages students and others to want to contribute.

In conclusion, the need for a holistic approach that includes all stages from design to production was also emphasised to create sustainable solutions that can be recycled. It is important to optimise the entire ecosystem rather than simply parts of it to succeed in the energy transition, Ramsköld said.

Watch the webcast from the seminar

The conducted program

Text: Magnus Trogen Pahlén