NWO gives sustainable materials research a nine million euro boost

19 January 2018

The funding from the NWO Materials for Sustainability programme (Mat4Sus) will be used to launch fifteen new research projects. Five of these involve public-private consortia, in which companies assist with the research work. These consortia are working on solar cells that can be moulded onto cars, and powerful batteries that won’t explode. They are also investigating modified molecules that could be used in batteries, heat storage in salt, and efficient ways to compress and purify hydrogen. The other ten projects, two of which involve private sector participation, focus on long-term, fundamental research.

If there is to be a smooth transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy, we will need new materials capable of efficiently storing and releasing energy, or of converting heat or chemical energy, for example, into electricity. When developing new materials, it is important to consider the availability and reusability of raw materials. We must also try to select materials that waste as little energy as possible. The aim of NWO’s Materials for Sustainability (Mat4Sus) programme is to boost interdisciplinary materials research in the Netherlands. The approved projects represent a significant step forward in the development of economical, long-lasting materials that can add to our energy supply with little or no environmental impact.

NWO’s materials research

The Materials for Sustainability programme is the first step in the development of a larger-scale materials programme for the Netherlands. NWO’s 2018-2019 support for the top sectors of Energy, Chemistry, and High Tech Systems and Materials (HTSM) includes a wide range of funding options for materials research within the ‘Materials NL’ scheme. This offers scope both for public-private partnerships and for fundamental research.

Awarded public-private research projects:

Solar cells instead of car paint​
Laurens Siebbeles (Delft University of Technology), Tom Gregorkiewicz (University of Amsterdam),
Peter Schall (University of Amsterdam)​
Partners: Delft University of Technology, Toyota Motor Europe, University of Amsterdam​

The partners in this project are developing new materials and designs for ultra-thin, light, flexible, and inexpensive high-efficiency solar cells. These solar cells are intended for use on surfaces where there is limited space, which are not straight, or which must be able to move flexibly. One example would be the surface of an electric car. The researchers are modifying promising, newly discovered materials to capture as many colours of sunlight as possible, and convert them efficiently into electricity. They will show how these materials can be used to make efficient, thin, flexible solar cells with the highest possible energy yield.

Safe, powerful, inexpensive batteries
Marnix Wagemaker (Delft University of Technology), Wolter Jager (Delft University of Technology), Eric Kelder (Delft University of Technology)
Partners: Shell, Delft University of Technology
In the current generation of lithium batteries, the electric current is conducted by liquids. These liquids are toxic and flammable, leading to safety risks. Many of these problems could be avoided by replacing the liquid with a solid. This project will investigate novel lithium-sulfur technology, where the battery consists entirely of solids. By combining two recently developed techniques, the researchers can observe the transport of lithium ions in the battery, down to the atomic level. This will help them develop new strategies to boost the efficiency of these batteries. They will study two combinations of materials that seem very promising in terms of creating safe, inexpensive, long-lasting batteries capable of storing large amounts of energy.

Molecules with the ‘X factor’ for batteries
Süleyman Er (Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research - DIFFER)
Partners: Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research, Green Energy Storage (Italy)
The electricity supplied by renewable energy sources like the sun and the wind tends to be unpredictable. To attune supply with demand, we need batteries that are capable of efficiently storing and releasing electrical energy. With this in mind, the researchers are tweaking several non-toxic, water-soluble molecules found in various everyday products like food and medicines. They start with thousands of candidates that could potentially be used in batteries of this kind. Then, using robust and rapid computational methods, they select a shortlist of the most suitable molecules. Next, they test these molecules in the laboratory.

Salt for summer heat in winter
Henk Huinink (Eindhoven University of Technology), Olaf Adan (Eindhoven University of Technology), David Smeulders (Eindhoven University of Technology), Elias Vlieg (Radboud University)
Partners: CRUX Engineering, De Beijer RTB, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), Eindhoven University of Technology
Almost seventy percent of all the energy consumed in Europe’s built environment is used for heating, cooling, and hot water. It would be hugely beneficial if heat surpluses during the year could be stored for lengthy periods of time and used in times of scarcity. This project is exploring the potential of salt hydrates, to see whether they might fit the bill. These substances store heat by releasing water molecules. When water is added to the dry salts, the stored heat is released. The researchers want to improve the capacity and stability of these salts. Their project is also exploring ways of producing these substances on an industrial scale, as well as everyday applications in buildings or below ground.

Smart hydrogen compression
Baira Donoeva (Utrecht University)
Partners: HyET Hydrogen, University of Twente, Utrecht University
Hydrogen gas is very efficient at storing energy, which can then be used in hydrogen cars, for example. At atmospheric pressure, however, hydrogen takes up a lot of space, so it has to be compressed under enormous pressure before it can be used to refuel hydrogen cars. The scientists working on this project plan to refine a recently developed method for compressing hydrogen gas, one that also removes any impurities. As yet, this process cannot effectively handle hydrogen that is contaminated with carbon monoxide, which is often the case with hydrogen produced from biomass or from crude oil, for example. The researchers are looking into the potential of smart pre-treatments to remove the carbon monoxide contaminant before the gas enters the compressor. They are also developing novel catalysts capable of accelerating hydrogen gas reactions in the compressor but impervious to carbon monoxide.

Awarded fundamental and applied research projects

Doubling the amount of electricity from solar cells
Bruno Ehrler (NWO Institute AMOLF), Han Zuilhof (Wageningen University & Research), Laurens Siebbeles (Delft University of Technology)
Partners: Surfix, Toyota Motor Europe, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research, Delft University of Technology,

A consortium of researchers from FOM Institute AMOLF, Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University will work on a new type of solar cell capable of doubling the power output per photon, in theory. This is based on the principle of ‘singlet fission’, in which the energy of a high-energy molecule is divided between two molecules. If this can be implemented efficiently, it will lead to a substantial reduction in the cost of solar cells. This, in turn, should expand and accelerate the introduction of renewable energy sources.

Thin films for smart windows
Bernard Dam (Delft University of Technology), Arno Kentgens (Radboud University)
Partners: Radboud University Nijmegen

In this project, Delft University of Technology and Radboud University Nijmegen will develop novel thin layers in which hydrogen ions can move freely. These electrolyte layers are essential for the development of solid-state batteries, fuel cells and smart windows. This project’s research effort is focused on the new class of oxyhydrides. It will explore the conditions under which, in compounds, oxygen and hydrogen remain stable as separate, negatively charged ions. It will also investigate ways of selectively enhancing the mobility of such negatively charged hydrogen ions.

Record-breaking solar cell with novel crystalline structure
Jos Haverkort (Eindhoven University of Technology), Erik Bakkers (Eindhoven University of Technology), Erik Garnett (FOM Institute AMOLF)
Partners: NWO Institute AMOLF

The aim of this research is to create a silicon germanium solar cell with a novel crystalline structure. The researchers expect this new hexagonal crystalline structure to break the current efficiency records for silicon solar cells. This material has a direct bandgap, so they suspect it should even be possible to break the 33.7 percent efficiency limit (known as the Shockley Queisser limit) with this technology, which is compatible with existing silicon technology.

Fuel from a greenhouse gas
Jarl Ivar van der Vlugt (University of Amsterdam), Joost Reek (University of Amsterdam), Dennis Hetterscheid (Leiden University), Stefiana Grecea (University of Amsterdam)
Partners: Leiden University, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands

In today’s society, carbon dioxide is an undesirable and useless product. The researchers want to develop new catalytic materials capable of converting CO2 into liquid fuels. Their goal is to make the conversion itself, and the materials used, as sustainable as possible. To this end, the researchers from Amsterdam and Leiden will use cheap metals such as iron as catalysts, plus sunlight and electricity extracted from water. The ultimate goal is to create the first prototype of a real ‘device’ for converting water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and CO, an ideal feedstock for the synthesis of high-energy fuels.

Cheaper, more convenient solar cell materials
Tom Savenije (Delft University of Technology),
Partners: Solliance, EPFL Switzerland

Metal halide perovskites have great potential as solar cell materials. Indeed, they could eventually replace traditional silicon solar cells. The advantages are inexpensive starting materials and a straightforward synthesis. Their efficiency needs to be improved, but this requires a better understanding of the mechanisms leading to losses and degradation, which involve factors such as light and moisture. These losses are often caused by very low levels of electronic defects. The goal of this project is to design a method that will make these defects visible. This method will be applied to perovskite layers produced by EPFL Switzerland and Solliance. Using this approach, the researchers will be able to identify the chemical structure and deposition methods that hold the greatest promise of improved efficiency and stability.

Higher efficiency with hot charge carriers
Maria Antonietta Loi (University of Groningen)
The charge carriers generated in solar cells lose a large part of their energy in the form of heat. As a result, these cells are always less than 33 percent efficient. The researchers in this project are studying a material whose charge carriers lose their energy only very gradually. This property may enable the team to make efficient use of these hot charge carriers. The goal is to understand the basis of this useful property, and to use this knowledge to boost the efficiency of thin layers. The ultimate objective is to produce a solar cell that uses these hot charge carriers to break the current efficiency limit.

Meta solar cells with improved functionality
Albert Polman (NWO Institute AMOLF), Andrea Alù (University of Texas)
Partners: University of Texas, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (Petten), Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (Freiburg), University of New South Wales (Sydney) and California Institute of Technology (Pasadena)

This project’s goal is to develop a new method for boosting the absorption and conversion of sunlight in solar cells. The team’s approach involves the use of metagratings – surfaces and interfaces featuring nanoscale patterns and structures. The metagratings consist of a periodic grid of light-scattering elements that have a specially designed shape. Using these gratings, different colours of light can be scattered at a specific angular distribution within the solar cell. The researchers plan to build these metagratings into solar cells, to boost their efficiency. Other uses include ultrathin flexible solar films, as well as coloured and transparent solar panels for applications in the built environment.

Understanding more about interfaces in photoelectrochemical processes
Frieder Mugele (University of Twente), Guido Mul (University of Twente), Igor Siretanu (University of Twente), Bastian Mei (University of Twente)
Photoelectric chemistry is a promising technology for capturing solar energy in chemical bonds. Researchers at the University of Twente will use advanced microscopy techniques to study photoelectrode interfaces at the atomic scale. They will explore the charge, composition and structure of electrodes during the production of hydrogen or oxygen from water. Their findings will be used to improve the activity of photoelectrochemical cells.

Capturing CO2 in formate
Ludo Juurlink (Leiden University), Andrei Kirilyuk (Radboud University), Joost Bakker (Radboud University), Marc Koper (Leiden University), Jörg Meyer (Leiden University), Irene Groot (Leiden University)
Partners: VSParticle BV, Radboud University Nijmegen

The greenhouse gas CO2 can be converted into methanol by adding hydrogen, H2, in the presence of a copper catalyst. Sadly, little or nothing is known about this reaction. Even the very first step – the formation of adsorbed format (HCOO) – is very poorly understood. In a unique cooperative venture, a team of theorists and experimentalists from Leiden University and Radboud University Nijmegen, assisted by VSParticle (a company based in Delft), will attempt to unravel the secrets of this crucial step.

New materials for safe and longer-lasting batteries
Petra de Jongh (Utrecht University), Moniek Tromp (University of Amsterdam), Peter Ngene (Utrecht University)
Partners: University of Amsterdam

This project will develop new solid electrolyte materials, to create a new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are safer, store more energy, and last longer.

Source: NWO