Monash thought leaders envision a clean energy future

Monash thought leaders envision a clean energy future

Monash Life | Climate change | 8 minute read

Renewables. Market structure. Storage. The Monash community is revolutionising how we think about and use power.

Want to make a real difference on climate change? Fix energy. Fix how we use it, how we buy it and perhaps most importantly, how we convert it to usable forms. Fix energy and you have a chance of keeping global warming within 1.5 degrees, the target the UN’s 2015 Paris climate agreement declared must be achieved to avoid catastrophe.

For the Monash community, that’s a prize worth fighting for. The University has committed to actively addressing the global challenge of climate change, and its pioneering outlook has invested in research and teaching programs exploring innovative, groundbreaking technologies.

“The challenges are enormous,” says Kane Thornton (Information Technology, 1997), CEO of Australia’s Clean Energy Council. “The honest reality is that we’re not moving quickly enough, but we are accelerating. We have doubled renewable energy in Australia in the last five years, and every year we break another record for how much renewable energy we install. The debate is no longer about whether we should transition to renewables, but how.

“And that’s why universities like Monash are so important. Whether it’s expert research into how we deploy renewable energies faster, more reliably and at lower cost, or ensuring we have the right skilled workforce to ensure it happens, universities clearly have an enormous role to play, and their work is invaluable.”

graphics of green ammonia being shipped
More efficient 'green ammonia' is considered a leading candidate to replace heavy fuel oil as part of the decarbonisation of international shipping.

Power the revolution

Professor of Engineering and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Research Infrastructure, Jacek Jasieniak’s work with nanomaterials is a prime example, and is opening a window on the future – literally. His team’s breakthroughs in photovoltaics (PVs) are creating solar windows that could ultimately generate significantly more power than rooftop panels. Up to now, solar window tech has wasted much of the energy it absorbs by reflecting or absorbing sunlight into what Jasieniak calls “useless heat”. But a new composition of semi transparent perovskite cells, developed at Monash, allow some visible light to pass through while also harvesting solar energy. This could lead to glass-based structures such as skyscrapers becoming self-powering.

“We’re looking at PVs that go beyond the traditional form, functionality and efficiency limits,” Jasieniak says. “Perovskites – named after their crystal-like structures – are a material class that has been known for decades but only recently started to be used for solar applications. Through these and other emerging materials, there’s a huge opportunity to rethink a building’s physical envelope and how this impacts on its use and energy ratings.

By using advanced forms of photovoltaic technology that are incorporated into wall and window- integrated solar technology, we could potentially see commercial buildings on their way to net zero in the near future.”

Most academics work on small-scale, high- efficiency devices, Jasieniak points out, but the problem is that many techniques and material formulations to achieve small-scale devices are not translatable to large-scale applications.

“It’s important to understand the small- scale science, but we need to ensure there’s a translation pathway – and printable PVs can do that,” he says. “We are achieving more than 12 per cent efficiency – still a big difference from the 25 per cent world record for solar panels, but the gap is getting smaller every day. Our work with perovskites will completely change the dynamic of how solar can be deployed.”

As well as the sun, our planet also has another, more unlikely source for its potential saviour: ammonia. More efficient ‘green ammonia’ has the potential to play a key role in decarbonising the energy sector as part of the shift to a hydrogen-based economy. It is considered a leading candidate to replace heavy fuel oil as part of the decarbonisation of international shipping, and also provides a favourable carrier mechanism to transport ‘liquified’ renewable energy between continents.

Currently 180 million tonnes of ammonia are produced each year for the fertiliser market, but the process generates, on average, around two tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of ammonia produced. Clearly, a net-zero form of ammonia is necessary, and Professor Doug MacFarlane and Dr Sasha Simonov may have the answer.

The pair, who founded spin-out company Jupiter Ionics last year, are not only producing green ammonia, but doing so with more energy efficiency than anyone else in the world. The team from the School of Chemistry had previously used electrolysis of water to make green hydrogen, but realised an almost identical process – drawing nitrogen from the atmosphere – could produce efficient green ammonia.

In both rate of production and efficiency of production we’re well ahead of any other institution in the world, we have some way to go on energy efficiency, but we think we know what to do to solve that. We know where the energy’s going, precisely where the energy is lost, and we’re working to combat that.”

Jupiter Ionics has an immediate goal of demonstrating green ammonia production for fertiliser use, initially through a grape farm demonstrator device in Northern Victoria by summer 2023. Its ambitions are wide- ranging. “Ammonia is an energy carrier,” says MacFarlane. “You can burn it, run an engine, use it as a pure fuel. You can run a big ship on ammonia as easily as you can diesel. It’s very much the future.”

If the future is net zero, what will the reality look like? That’s the question driving Monash’s Solar Decathlon Team, a multidisciplinary student-run team developing unique and practical net-zero building designs.

Strategic shading graphic of sun shining down on buildings
A 30cm overhang on a building could have the potential to reduce household energy consumption by 10 per cent.

Net zero goals

“It’s about exploring the practicalities of net zero in real situations, such as house building and examining the environmental impact all along the chain,” says Jamali Kigotho (Mechanical Engineering, BSc Physics 2022). “Theoretically you could put 1,000 solar panels on any house and it would become net zero, but it’s pointless looking only at the efficiency of the end product itself if manufacturing or transport processes have a negative impact before you even start using it.”

Most recently, Kigotho has been looking into passive house systems, a building rating system based on how you minimise energy usage, using things like strategic shading, for example.

“It occurred to me that by introducing a simple 30cm overhang on a building – so in summer it blocks out the high sun and makes the house cooler, but in winter, when the sun’s lower, it lets it in to warm up the building – you could reduce your energy bill by something like 10 per cent,” he says. Kigotho’s work on purpose-built, net-zero refuges for women and children experiencing domestic violence is also setting precedents for future building projects.

As part of Monash’s Green Steps leadership program, Kigotho studied the potential of solar trading, where instead of exporting excess solar electricity back to the grid, you can export to your neighbours. “If the grid will pay you 20c for a KwH of energy, but charges customers two dollars for it instead, you could sell it to your neighbour for a dollar. That way, you’re making five times as much money, your neighbours are getting their energy half-price – and you’re converting them to solar. Sometimes all you need is an environment like Monash to come up with a simple, cost-effective solution.”

But Monash’s innovative and world-leading approach to the climate change crisis isn’t just about the science. If Australia and the world are serious about saving the planet and making a wholesale shift to renewables, we need to create or refine systems and infrastructures, change policies and shift societal mindsets. “At Monash Energy Institute we co-ordinate the University’s sustainable energy transition- related research,” says its Director, Professor Ariel Liebman.

Our focus is climate change, but we don’t study climate systems. We take the science as given and focus on how to mitigate it.”

The Institute covers a raft of research themes relating to net zero, from groundbreaking tech to anthropology uncovering how and why individuals and communities adopt alternative energy, and its translation into investment and policy. “The whole focus is about enabling transition to 100 per cent renewable energy as early as possible to fit under the 1.5 degree trajectory,” says Liebman. “The biggest challenge is to act along all pathways at the same time, because we’ve run out of time. We can’t leave it to the market – it will take too long. We need a war effort approach, simultaneously ensuring societal and consumer issues are addressed so that inequities don’t arise during the transition.

“Climate change is a huge challenge, but I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t optimistic. We need clear societal transformations in our global mentality. I’m very proud that Monash is leading the way.”

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