AsianScientist (Apr. 14, 2021) – All across Asia—from the scorched, remote deserts of Western China now blanketed by solar farms, to the dense metropolises of Japan where vehicles using solid-state batteries are being prototyped—one observes the applications of modern chemistry and materials sciences spreading at a feverish pace.
Demand for these new technologies is often driven by the quest for energy efficiency and resource sustainability as governments and businesses alike try to keep pace with the region’s explosive growth in population and income.
This is best seen in Asia’s embrace of solar power. Overnight, China has become the world’s leading producer of both solar panels and solar-generated electricity. In 2018, China’s total deployed solar capacity of 175 GW comprised more than a third of the world’s, far ahead of the European Union’s 115 GW. Today, every Chinese city has achieved solar ‘grid parity:’ the point at which solar generation is as cheap as grid electricity.
India already has over 34 GW of installed solar capacity while analysts expect Southeast Asia to almost triple its capacity to 35.8 GW by 2024. Out of necessity, this land-scarce region will likely deploy a greater share of floating panels, over the region’s many dams, lakes and offshore bodies. Singapore, for instance, is developing one of the world’s largest offshore floating solar systems in the Johor Strait that separates it from Malaysia to the north.
While many Asian scientists are relentlessly improving our ability to turn sunlight into electricity, others still are improving the efficiency with which we turn electricity into light. Vivian Yam, a chemist at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), has spent more than two decades manipulating metal-containing compounds so they can better absorb or emit light.
She is one of the pioneers in the emerging field of phosphorescent OLEDs—in particular being the first to make them out of gold, which is more abundant, cheaper and environmentally friendly than conventional iridium or platinum. TCL, a Chinese electronics firm that is one of the world’s biggest TV manufacturers, has set up a joint laboratory at HKU to develop gold-based versions of printable OLED materials.
Others are lighting liquids. Liu Bin, a chemistry professor at the National University of Singapore, has jointly led the global development of water-dispersible fluorescent organic nanomaterials, which rely on a process called aggregation-induced emission. This is a phenomenon where fluorescent substances, which are non-emissive in dilute solutions, can be made to emit intense light when in aggregates.
LuminiCell, the firm Liu co-founded to commercialize her work, has been producing these organic fluorescent ‘bioprobes’ that allow for the easy, non-invasive imaging and tracking of biological processes, for instance in tumors or cancer cells. Other possible uses include for environmental water monitoring and heavy metal detection.
At the heart of Asia’s buzzing, newfangled energy circuits will be vastly improved storage and distribution systems. Virtual power plants, capable of integrating a multitude of distributed energy producers and consumers—a proposed ‘Internet of Energy’—are already being trialed in places such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Arguably the area of most excitement is novel fuel cells for vehicles, one in which Asian scientists have a cherished history of innovation. Akira Yoshino, chemistry professor and Nobel Laureate, is considered the father of the lithium-ion battery, which is used everywhere from mobile phones to electric cars.
In 1985, Yoshino created the world’s first commercially viable lithium-ion battery by using polyacetylene, an organic substance that can conduct electricity, as the anode, and cobalt oxide as the cathode.
He separated them with a thin, porous polyethylene-based membrane, and in doing so, overcame a critical safety barrier in lithium-ion batteries: overheating would hitherto melt the membrane and prevent further electrochemical reactions. Among his numerous other subsequent improvements was the development of an aluminum foil current collector.
Just like with solar panels, China is coming to dominate both the production—with 73 percent of global manufacturing capacity—and consumption of lithium-ion cells. This focus on enabling technologies is just one symptom of a much broader effort to use materials sciences to transform China into a high-tech economy—evidenced by the headlining one-billion-yuan Materials Genome Engineering project.
Newer technologies include hydrogen and solid-state fuel cells. One common critique of hydrogen as a fuel is its pollutive production process, typically through the gasification of coal or natural gas, releasing much carbon dioxide as byproduct. A cleaner method is via photocatalyst that use sunlight to turn water into hydrogen gas. Conventional photocatalysts are inefficient because they use ultraviolet light, which accounts for only three to four percent of the solar spectrum.
Researchers from the Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research at Osaka University in Japan have invented a photocatalyst that can absorb a wider spectrum of light, including both visible and near-infrared light—an important step towards emission-free hydrogen production, itself a big part of Japan’s Basic Hydrogen Strategy, which envisions a widespread hydrogen economy by 2050.
Finally, the race is on—between researchers in China, Japan, the US and elsewhere—to replace the lithium-ion battery with a viable solid-state one. The main difference between the two technologies is that the former uses a liquid as an electrolyte while the latter, as its name suggests, uses a solid material such as ceramic or glass. This should reduce its size and the risk of the battery bursting into flames. Asia’s chemists, in other words, may hold the key for the future of mobility.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustrations: Oi Keat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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