5 ways the ESRF’s research is helping tackle climate change

29-10-2021

As climate change threatens the world at an alarming rate, scientists are trying to find ways not only to mitigate the impact of climate change, but also to help protect the Earth’s ecosystems.

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At the ESRF, scientists have been working for the last three decades on several  ways of contributing to tackle the environmental crisis using the powerful X-ray techniques, as shown in the five examples below. 

1. CLEAN ENERGY

More than 100 experiments a year are dedicated to energy economy at the ESRF’s beamlines.  Many of these explore the world of lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used in our every day lives: from electric cars or bicycles to mobile phone batteries, medical devices or satellites.

With teams coming from Europe and the United States, the experiments done at the ESRF lead to high impact factor publications, as the recent one showing how structural defects affect lithium-ion battery performance in a systematic study of failed cells at the ID16A nano-imaging beamline (Cell. Rep. Phys. Sci. 2 100554). But many beamlines are involved such as ID01, ID31, ID19, ID15A.

Some groups are also focusing on promising components that could overcome the obstacles of lithium-ion in batteries. For instance, researchers are studying silicon anodes, which have up to 10 times more capacity than the commonly used graphite but it has other disadvantages. 

Many scientists also come to the ESRF to study clean energy technologies using for instance wide- angle X-ray scattering to study the crystallisation of tin-based perovskites, a promising solar-cell material (Adv. Funct. Mater. 30 2001294), or studying electrolysis and fuel cell technologies, or focusing on high-temperature solid oxide cells, which combine the production of high purity hydrogen and clean electricity by using operando X-ray scattering tomography and X-ray diffraction.

GRENOBLE BATTERY HUB

In addition to the unique capabilities of the ESRF, the neighbouring Institut Laue Langevin and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) offer a panoply of techniques to study batteries. In order to make the most of this offer, a new Grenoble Battery Hub, with the ILL and CEA as core partners is currently being implemented. In this hub, the partners act as the incubator for a targeted research hub in the field of batteries for energy storage.

2. GREENER MATERIALS

The steel industry generates between 7 and 9% of direct emissions from the global use of fossil fuel. The quest to decrease CO2 emissions from materials and engineering components has led scientists to characterise new, less polluting alloys with the ESRF’s X-rays.

Researchers are focusing not only on the end material, but also on how to process these materials in a more environmentally friendly way. For this, they study, for example, how resistant new light alloys are, the properties of new materials made using additive manufacturing or how to reduce the pollution during the processing of the materials.  They use synchrotron  ptychographic tomography, X-ray holotomography, X-ray nanotomography and high-energy X-ray diffraction.

3. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE

Agricultural systems are in increasing pressure amid climate change and the global population increase. In order to maintain agricultural productivity and food safety, scientists at the ESRF study how nutrients, toxic elements and nanomaterials behave at the plant-soil interface.

At the same time, a wide array of very varied experiments take place to explore the possibility of trapping carbon in a natural way. For example, scientists study how soils in the Amazon can absorb CO2 using scanning X-ray microscopy or the potential of serpentine rocks in Oman to store CO2 by analysing in situ serpentinization processes with tomography.

4. LONG-TERM CARBON CYCLE ON A PLANETARY SCALE

The transport of carbon into the deep Earth’s interior via subduction - the descent of plates from the surface into the mantle that are enriched with atmospheric carbon - is an important part of its global "cycle" on Earth. Yet the question if carbon can be trapped with this mechanism in the deep Earth remained open despite its importance for our understanding on long-term climate evolution. Now scientists have been finding answers to this fundamental question by employing the highly optimised ESRF instruments for studies of matter at the extreme conditions relevant for planetary interiors, namely ID27 and BM23.

In extreme matter research, the new EBS and geosciences facilities, such as the High Power Laser facility and the upgraded ID27 beamline, will provide significantly higher photon flux density and higher coherence, which means that researchers will be able to characterise higher pressure and temperature states.

5. BIOENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING

Protein crystallography coupled with spectroscopy has proven an ideal technique to provide information on the structure and mechanism of enzymes that could help reduce bio-waste or have a technological application, such as the production of biofuels (Science 372 6538).

Last year, scientists at the Toulouse Biotechnology Institute (TBI) in France and Carbios, a French start-up company, used the ESRF’s structural-biology beamline ID30B to help solve the structure of a new enzyme that can quickly degrade plastic waste (Nature 580 216).

The new EBS flagship beamline for time-resolved Synchrotron Serial Crystallography, ID29, will have unmatched flux density and time resolution, which will make it possible to collect data from crystals of biological macromolecules of a few micrometers in size and with a time resolution of a few microseconds.