Determining whether a technology is really “clean” or not is far from easy. It requires a holistic approach, and not just focusing on its performance during the production or use phase.
“Take electric vehicles, for example,” says Enrico Benetto, who heads the Environmental Sustainability Assessment and Circularity (SUSTAIN) unit of LIST’s Environmental Research and Innovation department. “Although their adoption is a major step towards cleaner mobility, different aspects all along their lifecycle need to be carefully considered when designing their deployment. They will only generate significant environmental gains if the electricity used comes from renewable sources, for example. Batteries should be reused at the end of their lives, for example to store renewable energy in buildings, and potential social issues related to the extraction of raw materials have to be transparently addressed.”
Sustainable hydrogen production
Two of LIST’s current flagship research projects focus on making hydrogen production easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly. The institute is working on innovative techniques for the fractionation of water molecules – composed of oxygen and hydrogen – in order to recover the hydrogen component directly, without the need for costly and energy-intensive catalysis processes. LIST is also developing special materials capable of capturing the solar energy needed to implement the fractionation of water molecules by a photo-electrochemical reaction.
Hydrogen can be an important source of energy in the future.
“Hydrogen can be an important source of energy in the future, in particular for aviation and maritime transportation, but current production methods are dependent on non-renewable energies,” comments Dr Benetto. “The development of these new techniques powered by solar energy can be a significant step forward when steered by a ‘sustainable by design’ approach.” The objective is to extend this emerging technology on an industrial scale by 2030.
Ensuring a positive impact
Defining holistic models for evaluating clean technologies is an important task for Dr Benetto and his team. Around 10 members of his units work as expert evaluators for the Solar Impulse Foundation, which is labelling 1,000 solutions that can protect the environment in a profitable way. LIST’s role is to ensure that the labelled technologies will really generate a positive impact throughout their complete lifecycle, thereby fostering the transition to a more sustainable society.
The team is also working on an evaluation matrix for characterising clean technologies at different levels of maturity in order to help financial investors assess their environmental friendliness and business potential. The work contributes to European and national sustainable finance initiatives, the objective of which is to channel private investment towards the transition to a climate-neutral economy.
Adapting user behaviour: the data approach
Although clean technologies are essential to achieve the EU’s objective of becoming climate-neutral by 2050, Dr Benetto is convinced that they are not enough. “We, as individuals and consumers, need to understand the impact of our use of technology and adapt our behaviour. Companies also have to better understand how their products really are being used, as reality might differ considerably from the design requirements.”
We need to understand the impact of our use of technology and adapt our behaviour.
LIST is in the starting blocks for developing “digital twin” models and apps allowing users to be better informed and to share data, in a fair and secure way, with technology developers on how they actually use their products in everyday life. “I’m certain that client-centric technology development with a participatory approach, which involves users already from the design phase, will become increasingly important. This will be essential to sustain the energy and sustainability transitions in the next decade.”
Photo: Laurent Antonelli