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Q&A: We need non-critical raw materials for green tech to flourish

Europe needs to see green tech breakthroughs in three areas: air, water and soil, says Dr Matteucci. Image credit - Francesco Matteucci

Developing new, green technologies has been hailed as a way to both achieve Europe’s environmental goals and support its economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic. But what type of green technologies do we need and how do we get them scaled up to a point where they can have a real impact?

Horizon spoke to Dr Francesco Matteucci, a materials science and innovation expert, about which green tech he sees as priorities and how to turn ideas into prototypes and new technologies. He is responsible for managing the EU’s portfolio of investments in materials for energy and environmental sustainability under the newly launched European Innovation Council (EIC) (see box).

Part of your role in the EIC is to set out a vision for technological and innovation breakthroughs. What are the areas that you see as needing critical attention when it comes to environmental sustainability?

I approach it by looking at air, water and soil.

Linked obviously to the air are activities relating to CO2, where carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is really needed. We listen to a lot of words, a lot of ideas. But what we really need to see is a lot of prototypes and a lot of technologies that are working in this field.

In fresh water, there is a strong need for the development of new technologies for water treatment. Technologies that are able to develop their capability to depollute fresh water of what we call emerging pollutants – for example, antibiotics. Traditional ways of water treatment are based on technology and methods developed 30, 40, 50 years ago, when antibiotics, for example, were not so widely used as today.

If we look at sea water, a really serious problem is the issue of microplastics. We have to look at the overall value chain of plastic, developing new (sustainable) materials, where possible, to substitute for single-use plastics. And we need to implement new ways of re-using existing plastics and avoiding the dispersion and the disposal of these plastics everywhere, and in particular in seawater.

In the same way, if you look at the soil, there is the issue of waste disposal and all the problems associated with the old ways and, unfortunately, many new ways of polluting the soil.

Unfortunately, the topic of plastics will take longer (to solve) than what we expect because single-use plastics are part of our daily life. To develop sustainable materials and change the behaviour of billions of people will require a longer time.

Given these needs, what kinds of research would you want to support that could help with addressing these environmental problems?

In working on overarching technologies for air, water and soil, we can consider the importance of the use of ‘environmental intelligence’. That means the use of data coming from all the different sources we can get, given all the different sensors we have, thanks to the strong development of the Internet of Things. These can help in environmental monitoring and in identifying pollution and implementing the right corrective actions.

For example, there are small robots that can use tiny 3D printers to grow ‘roots’ that move inside the soil, looking for pollutants, and their sensors can recognise contamination where people may want to grow crops. This may help to identify places such as where there has been unapproved dumping, or unapproved landfill.

Another example would be in monitoring water contamination, and in developing technology that can use robots and radiation sensors to collect data on radioactivity in sea water.

‘I approach it by looking at air, water and soil.’

Dr Francesco Matteucci, Programme Manager, European Innovation Council

Your role within the European Innovation Council is focused on helping to drive forward research and technological developments specifically in green energy and materials. What needs to happen here?

It is fundamentally necessary to develop the energy storage side. And in energy storage, we can improve a lot with the technologies we already have.

But energy systems will also have to be different from the way they are now. In electrification, it will, hopefully, focus on renewables. And we will have to go towards some famous buzzwords. One is the ‘prosumer’, that means each one of us will be a producer of energy and consumer of energy. And the other is the ‘distributed generation’ system.

Nowadays, the world, due to fossil fuel exploitation, is based on a centralised energy system. But the future will be distributed, where we will have many energy communities and many different grids, or overarching grids.

This brings another important issue – sector coupling – putting together energy carriers and storage, such as for renewables and renewable hydrogen, and (integrating) them more closely with the consumption.

Hydrogen from renewables can give added value also as an energy storage system because energy storage, nowadays, is the most expensive part of the renewable energy system.

We need to develop different technologies based on varied power outputs and based on the different timings of storage, because batteries are good for short-to-medium-term storage, while hydrogen, for example, can be a solution for longer-term or seasonal storage.

On the energy side, it is also important to look at new fuels, such as solar fuels, where they can use bioreactors or artificial photosynthesis to convert raw materials into fuel.

What are the priorities that you see in your role to enable this?

Many products, in particular in energy storage – meaning batteries – and hydrogen production or hydrogen use, such as electrolysers and fuel cells, are mainly based on critical raw materials. What is needed is to develop non-critical raw materials that are able to make these devices work.

Cost is something that is strongly linked here. Often the raw materials that are currently used perform in a good way but are also really expensive. So there is a lot of research to be done to substitute these with new components.

But, for everything that is linked to materials, in my opinion, it is fundamental that in the future it will also rely on another step, and that is ‘circularity’.

 

Could you explain what you mean by circularity?

The circular approach means thinking and working through ways of increasing the overall reuse of all materials through their lifecycle. From the beginning, with the design of the materials, you have to know how you will try to make and use them continuously, so they never become waste.

So on one side, we need the exploitation of non-critical raw materials and on the other side, to use the circular approach.

What timescales are you looking at?

For energy technology, the replacements for critical raw materials will require quite a long time and not be ready in the next few years. Here it is a matter of combining the know-how, the money and the policies.

But in energy storage, we can for sure improve a lot with the technologies that we have ongoing already.

How does the consumer fit into all of this?

For the energy transition, we need to engage all stakeholders, in particular, citizens. Are we prepared to lower our wonderful quality of life, as individuals, in order to switch off everything that is not needed and reduce consumption? So this transition may take longer than what has been envisaged.

The EIC is going to be funding this type of breakthrough green tech with grants, but also through an investment fund that takes a stake of up to 25% of a start-up, with the investment managed by the EIC Fund. How do you see this contribution working and what do these investments bring to the start-up?

It is not easy to find the right moment for making an investment, but the idea of the EIC fund is really good – to put equity money where venture capital may not want to (yet), because the ideas are too risky. If the fund is able to put up the first money, that can leverage more funding from private investors, so overcoming the EU paradox – failures in translating scientific advances into marketable innovations.

But it is not only important when you put in the money, or how much money you put in, but also the type of money. What is really needed generally is what they call 'good money'.

‘Good money’ means money plus the (other) things that you need ... such as a network linked with the corporate world, or it might mean ways of developing intellectual property in a different way. You should put in the equity, plus all the services that the EIC is providing to … reach the final creation of the product or of the service.

How will you promote collaboration between researchers and entrepreneurs to encourage innovation?

The EIC programme managers will have a hands-on approach in grouping and working with projects with similar themes. They offer a vision for the future from the overall perspective, but also work as developers and connectors for different partners or teams working to make innovations and to get projects to the market.

The aim is both facilitating exploration and research – with a long-term view of those projects – and exploitation, where the more advanced projects can make a transition to the market over the short to medium term.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

European Innovation Council launch

The EU’s European Innovation Council was formally launched on 18 March 2021 after three-year pilot. With a budget of over €10 billion from 2021-2027, around €1.5 billion of which is earmarked for its 2021 spending round, the EIC aims to support innovative researchers and small businesses in Europe to develop and scale up breakthrough technologies. 

New features of the EIC include the EIC Fund, which provides equity or quasi-equity for high-risk, high-impact innovation and is expected to take more than €1 billion in equity in small and medium-sized businesses this year; a more user-friendly application system; and a new funding programme called EIC Transition, which is aimed at helping create spin-out companies from research results. There will also be specific measures to support female innovators.

Four programme managers have also been appointed to manage project portfolios and shape the EIC’s visions for technological and innovation breakthroughs. Their expertise covers biomedicine and biotechnology; medical technology and medical devices; materials for energy and environmental sustainability; and clean energy and biosystems engineering. More programme managers will join the EIC in the future.

 

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