Sustainable energy - getting more from less
As the world relies more on renewable energy to limit climate change, an EU-funded project has produced insights into how nanotechnology could support cleaner power and promoted university-business links for targeted future innovation in this field.
© Lund University 2018
The PHD4ENERGY project trained 12 post-graduate students from around the world in researching how nanotechnology which engineers machines and organisms at the level of their molecules could safely create and improve renewable energy technology. As part of its mission, the project also developed industry training for post-graduate students and links with business to strengthen Europes competitiveness in this sector.
Students innovations included lab-scale machines with potential applications in low-energy lighting, energy-efficiency and healthcare. For such a small group of young researchers, the endeavour was highly successful.
There were 30 separate outcomes, says PHD4ENERGY project coordinator Heiner Linke of the research centre NanoLund at Lund University in Sweden. The project has increased our capacity to train people for industry. Now we know how to do this, we could do it more systematically for other students.
Prepared for industry
A leading result was proof that nanoscale machines could harvest energy from generated or waste heat, such as from computers or factory processes. The research made it onto the cover of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
How to do this with a high degree of efficiency was an unsolved question 10 to 15 years ago, says Linke.
The students developed tiny semiconductors that improve solar cell and LED light performance, as well as insights into how nanostructures could be safer for both people and nature. They also developed molecular motors that could one day use energy from chemical reactions to create movement in a similar way that proteins do in the body.
Research spanned the whole spectrum of basic and applied science. Courses on scientific and entrepreneurial skills along with business input on student training ensured that the project was relevant to industry needs. Secondments in a network of 11 research and industry partners gave the young researchers experience working on commercial as well as academic problems, developing skills and contacts for future work.
The approach was so successful that some students received job offers following their secondments, according to Linke.
Centre of skills
PHD4ENERGY allowed Lund University to expand its specialisation in semiconductor nanowires, which are already used for sustainable energy technology. Academic training took place at the Lund materials science research hub. This includes: NanoLund, the Center for Nanoscience at Lund University; the MAX IV synchrotron, which offers high-quality x-ray radiation for materials investigations; and local spin-off companies that specialise in nanomaterials-based technology.
A PHD4ENERGY summer school in August 2016 added to the projects impact by attracting over 50 additional young researchers and many external lecturers, including the 2016 Nobel laureate Ben Feringa. In addition, participants published over 35 articles in scientific journals and made dozens of presentations at scientific conferences.
According to Linke, Lund Universitys experience with international students allowed the project to attract excellent participants, some from as far as China and India.
All 12 graduated this a very good result, he adds.
Interest in the sustainable energy potential of the universitys nanotechnology research has increased thanks to the project.
The secondments reinforced our industry links locally and more widely abroad, says Linke.
School visits in Lund and nearby Copenhagen in Denmark gave younger students the chance to develop an interest in this useful technology, supporting growth of a regional industry.
To maintain this momentum, NanoLund aspires to offer secondments to all of its 130 PhD students, says Linke. He adds that the university has applied for follow-up grants to build on work done in the project, while additional industry and spin-out collaborations are planned.
PHD4ENERGY received funding through the EUs Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme.