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Earth Day 2014

Greener Cities

April 22nd is Earth Day, a day when more than a billion people in 190 different countries raise awareness of the environmental challenges we face, and their solutions. This year’s theme is Green Cities; as an ever-increasing proportion of the world’s population takes to city living, and as the impacts of climate change become clearer, the need to create more sustainable communities is more pressing than ever.

You may be surprised at just how much STFC science is geared towards solving environmental problems. Operating world-class big science facilities such as the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source uses a lot of electricity, and dominates STFC’s greenhouse gas emissions. We make continuous efforts to use energy-efficient operating conditions and technologies, and we aim to maximise the benefit of facilities like ISIS to the academic community, industrial users and UK society. Last year an international review determined that ISIS’ operations are world-class, and provide an excellent capability to the science community. Today we’re going to take the opportunity to see how scientists are using ISIS to make modern life more eco-friendly.

Many of the researchers using ISIS to perform their experiments are looking into low-carbon energy sources. ISIS spin-out company Cella Energy used neutron scattering to help them develop inexpensive new solid materials that store and release hydrogen gas that can be used safely to power both cars and homes. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and contains three times more energy per unit weight than petrol. When burnt it produces no waste products other than water, and using hydrogen fuel could dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

The crystal structure of NOTT-300
(Credit: The University of Nottingham)

Another advanced storage material, NOTT 300, was developed by the University of Nottingham in collaboration with ISIS. NOTT 3300 is designed to store a different gas – carbon dioxide – and its efficiency and low cost makes it an exciting breakthrough in the battle against atmospheric pollution. It has the potential to reduce the emissions of greenhouses gases from burning fossil fuels, capturing and storing carbon dioxide (and the environmentally-damaging sulphur dioxide).

Solar power is a clean energy source, and a scientific advance made by ISIS users promises a revolution in the production of solar cells, making solar panels much more affordable. Scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Cambridge discovered that plastic solar cells could be ‘printed’ onto a surface – a bit like varnishing a table top – to maximise their efficiency. This simple process would be much cheaper and easier than the current methods of producing solar panels.

Of course, as well as cleaning up our energy sources, we need to look at improving our energy efficiency and reducing the amount of energy that we waste. Enhanced lubricants have the potential to increase operating efficiency in many systems, and are attracting global interest. A collaboration of scientists from the BP Institute, at the University of Cambridge, and Queen Mary’s University of London uses neutron reflectrometry to look at lubricant additives and their interaction with iron, to discover how these molecules function. Lubricants reduce heat, noise and wear by reducing friction, and additives give each finished product its specific properties. With over 37.4 million tonnes of lubricants used worldwide every year, this area of science is growing in importance.

Research led by University of London’s Royal Holloway has been using ISIS and ESRF to investigate advanced thermoelectric materials that can turn heat into electricity. Thermoelectric materials could make use of waste heat from cars and domestic appliances, raising the overall fuel efficiency. They could also be used for off-grid operations such as a manned mission to Mars and be turned into solid state refrigerators that produce electricity whilst cooling computers (including supercomputers.)

Supercomputers are now key to scientific advancement in every aspect of research – from healthcare to climate change and global security – and even in finance and entertainment. Supercomputers are limited by their power consumption, and STFC is working on energy efficient computing technologies that will usher in the next generation of exascale supercomputers, capable of performing a million trillion calculations per second.

In summer 2014, the world’s first Maximum Performance Computer (MPC) will be installed at the Hartree Centre at Daresbury Laboratory. The MPC-X is a collaboration between STFC and Maxeler Technologies, a highly energy efficient supercomputer that should speed up dataflow computing and reduce the energy costs for both scientific and industry partners.

Once MPC-X is online it will enable UK industry and academia to develop products and services for a massive range of applications – including medical imaging and healthcare data analytics, industrial microscopy, large-scale simulations, media and entertainment.

The Emerald Supercomputer
(Credit: STFC)

The Emerald supercomputer at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is three times more power efficient than standard computing architecture, leading the way towards greener computing. The system is heavily used for both academic and industrial applications, and STFC are building on these successes by developing a new National GPU-based HPC facility at the RAL data centre. Emerald will be providing real-time pulsar detection application for the Square Kilometre Array, the world's most powerful radio telescope.

Whilst we’re helping to clean up our energy supply and improve our energy efficiency, we’re also helping to improve understanding of climate change and its effects. We’re all so used to seeing clouds in the sky that we don’t often think about them, but in fact modelling cloud formation is one of the biggest sources of uncertainty in climate change science. Clouds form when water vapour condenses around tiny particles (aerosols) suspended in the air, to form droplets. Neutron scattering experiments showed that ozone from vehicle emissions can reduce the speed with which clouds form, and this data is updating models of cloud reflectivity and drizzle potential, rainfall patterns and the water cycle.

Greenhouse gas emissions are only one of the waste products that cities produce. Nanoparticles are becoming indispensable to modern society, with over a million tonnes of silica nanoparticles being used in food, cosmetics and many other industries. They find their way into the sewage system, and from their into their wider environment, where their impact is (as yet) largely unknown. Scientists from King’s College London, Oxford University and NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) used ISIS to uncover a way that nanoparticles can be removed from waste water, preventing their appearance in the environment.

And ISIS is being used by researchers from the University of Birmingham to investigate how biominerals produced by bacteria could be used to help the large-scale decontamination efforts at Fukushima. The large volumes of contaminated soil collected from Fukushima presents significant clean-up and storage challenges, but the team hope that hydroxyapatite (a biomineral similar to bones and teeth) produced by Serratia bacteria can help, as it can absorb up to 15 times more radionuclides than commercially-produced hydroxyapatite.

And science at ISIS isn’t just helping to clean up our cities – it could help build them too. Studies at ISIS have shown that adding ash from sugar cane waste could make cement stronger, able to withstand higher pressures, and less likely to crumble. This cement’s improved resistance to water penetration could lead to essentially maintenance-free buildings, and it’s cheaper to manufacture and generates less carbon dioxide in the process. A small change to manufacturing processes in such a large industry could lead to real changes.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this round-up of some of ISIS’ environment science. Keep an eye on our website, or Twitter, or Facebook, for more stories from our facilities and partner organisations.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000