Additional recognition for the quality of research at the Politecnico di Torino: two young teachers at the university, both with the Department of Applied Science and Technology, will conduct highly innovative research awarded by the ERC – European Research Council. Both have received an award, founded in 2007 by the ERC, to support projects of excellence that are “highly ambitious, pioneering and unconventional”.
The results of the selection for the ERC Starting Grants were announced today. These grants target emerging research leaders with 2-7 years of post-doctorate experience, and, this year, two Politecnico researchers were recognised: Federico Bella, who was awarded funds of around 1.5 million Euro for his project SuN2rise (solar driven electrochemical nitrogen fixation for ammonia refinery) and Andrea Lamberti, who obtained 1.5 million for his project CO2CAP (Energy harvesting from CO2 emission exploiting ionic liquid-based CAPacitive mixing).
The projects are concentrated on two uses of clean energy: SuN2rise seeks to develop a new process for producing ammonia and fertilizers from atmospheric air and using the sun’s energy, thus redesigning one of the most costly and polluting chemical processes on the planet. CO2CAP seeks to recover energy from CO2 production through the use of ionic liquids specifically developed to absorb carbon dioxide, with the advantage of being much less polluting than conventional methods.
The university has strongly committed to excellence research, facilitating the presentation of projects and research for ERC Grants with training, information, and support for researchers, of which these two new projects are only the latest in a series of very encouraging results. Currently, the Politecnico can count 20 ERC projects worth 24 million Euros, including 1 Advanced Grant, 8 Consolidator Grants, 8 Starting Grants, and 3 ERC Proof of Concepts. In addition, the university has, in recent years, greatly increased the number of successfully presented proposals, bringing the percentage of contributions received from the ERC, over the total contribution received from European framework programmes for research and innovation, from 4.5% (in the FP7) to 24% (in H2020).
The Chancellor Guido Saracco and the Vice Chancellor for Research Stefano Corgnati express their satisfaction: “The ERC grant competitions select the best researchers in Europe and have now assumed strategic importance, not only for the scientific excellence research conducted, but also because ERC projects are an acknowledged indicator of the reputation of an institution and the existence of an environment favourable to research activities. In addition, this represents an important factor for attracting human capital and qualified investments. These results are, therefore, a strong reason for us to feel satisfied and they confirm a growing trend in our capacity to attract European investment thanks to the quality of our researchers, who are also supported by targeted actions developed by the university to support them in presenting their proposals but also in implementing projects.”
THE WINNING PROJECTS
SuN2rise (solar driven electrochemical nitrogen fixation for ammonia refinery)
PRODUCING FERTILIZERS FROM AIR AND WATER WITH SOLAR ENERGY
Prof. Federico Bella – Department of Applied Science and Technology
Pairing photovoltaic electricity production with the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, the compound at the base of agricultural fertilizers. This is the ambitious objective of the SuN2rise project, which enabled Professor Federico Bella of the Department of Applied Science and Technology to win a prestigious ERC Starting Grant of 1.5 million Euros for the next five years. The project proposes new ideas for converting solar energy and the production of fertilizers, through the creation of an integrated device that combines hybrid photovoltaic cells with systems for converting air into ammonia. Ammonia is one of the most widely used chemical products in the world, in particular as fertilizer, but its synthesis process requires extremely critical experimental conditions in terms of high temperatures and pressure.
The process proposed by the project involves three characteristic elements designed to overcome the main challenge of this project, i.e. breaking down and converting the nitrogen molecule, one of the most stable existing in nature. The work group will develop nanostructured electrocatalysts capable of destabilising the nitrogen molecule, polymer systems for conducting lithium ions and regenerating this metal (known for its ability to react with nitrogen), and electrochemical reactors on the laboratory scale for conducting the process. The project will be implemented in the laboratories of the DISAT Electrochemistry Group – facilities that are at the forefront for issues related to batteries, photovoltaics, and electrocatalysts.
The SuN2rise project approach has three advantages compared to the current ammonia production process. In the first place, the electrochemical reaction occurs in mild conditions and without CO2 emissions. Then, the energy required by the process is provided by hybrid solar cells (based on perovskite or a colourant), which have the peculiarity that they can be prepared on glass supports that enable their direct use as the casing of the reactor itself, ensuring excellent integration. Finally, this process can be implemented and exported anywhere, even in remote areas. Given that ammonia is the basis of the majority of fertilizers, the SuN2rise process would enable their production directly on farms, thus avoiding the storage of these products (one of which, ammonium nitrate, has recently showed how dangerous it is if stored in large quantities and in urban areas, as happened in Beirut). “Electrochemistry has become the platform by means of which today we can convert and store energy, as well as produce chemical products for widespread consumption, thus redesigning the chemical industry in a sustainable manner”, Federico Bella says.
Federico Bella (Turin, 1987) is associate professor of Chemical Foundations of Technologies at the Politecnico di Torino. Having graduated in Industrial Chemistry and completed his PhD in Electronic Devices, he undertook research at the Universitat Politècnica de València, the National University of Malaysia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. He won the “ENI Award 2016” as best researcher under 30 in the field of renewables, the “Environment, Sustainability & Energy Division Early Career Award” of the Royal Society of Chemistry for the innovative development of materials for solar cells and batteries, and he recently received the “Roberto Piontelli” International Award from the President of Italy for scientific contributions in the field of electrochemical energy. He is the author of 80 publications in international journals and is a member of the editorial committee of Chemical Engineering Journal and ChemSusChem, prestigious journals in the field of innovation and the sustainability of materials, products, and chemical processes. He is also a member of the International Relations Committee of the Italian Chemical Society and of the Governing Board of the Industrial Chemical Division.
CO2CAP (Energy harvesting from CO2 emission exploiting ionic liquid-based CAPacitive mixing)
RECOVERING ENERGY FROM CO2 EMISSIONS
Dr Andrea Lamberti – Department of Applied Science and Technology
Reducing the carbon dioxide released into the air, and possibly recovering it, is one of the major themes for discussion in the field of combatting polluting, climate-altering emissions. An innovative response comes from the CO2CAP project of the researcher Andrea Lamberti of the Department of Applied Science and Technology at the Politecnico di Torino. The European Research Council has awarded Lamberti the prestigious ERC Starting Grant: 1.5 million Euros in funding for five years.
In recent years, Lamberti’s research has been concentrated on two themes that merge in the project: on the one hand, nanotechnology and nanomaterials for energy; and, on the other hand, the storage of energy using supercapacitors, a kind of battery that accumulates energy, though based on a different principle to that of classic batteries. In the field of supercapacitors, one very effective technology is associated with the use of ionic liquids, or liquid salts at room temperature. These salts may be developed specifically to absorb CO2, with the advantage, compared to conventional methods, of being much less polluting.
In contrast to a simple, rechargeable battery, though, the devices devised in the context of the CO2CAP project won’t just absorb carbon dioxide, but, in the course of the process, they will charge the electrodes of a supercapacitor, thus recovering energy, through a mechanism called capacitive mixing (CapMix). This process entails that, when two solutions containing CO2 absorbed at different concentrations are mixed, energy is released, which will be able to be recovered thanks to CO2CAP. But, in addition to the energy advantage, the CO2CAP project also proposes another one: the possibility of recovering pure CO2 at the end of the process, compared to the conventional, non-treated emissions, which see CO2 mixed with air and other waste substances, in a form that is not, therefore, easy to reuse. Pure CO2 can, instead, be used to produce chemical reagents of industrial origin and fuels. The technology could be used to absorb CO2 produced at the industrial level, which represents a significant percentage of the overall atmospheric pollution.
“For me, this project represents a puzzle that has gradually come together over the course of my career, beginning with my first experience in the laboratory in the field of microfluidics, then moving to miniaturised sensors, and then to nanomaterials for
energy applications. All these pieces fitted together to compose CO2CAP, a project that will make it possible to reduce the pollution produced by CO2, capturing it in a device that can purify it for a successive re-use and, at the same time, recovering energy with a sustainable process”, Andrea Lamberti says.
Andrea Lamberti (Bra, 1984) is a senior researcher in Experimental Physics of Matter at the Politecnico di Torino. Having graduated in Physical Engineering and completed a doctorate in Electronic Devices, he undertook research at the University of Lubjana (Slovenia) and at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. Lamberti won the “Call for Creative Communities” in 2017 for an innovative idea on biomolecular sensors. He is the author of more than 100 publications in international journals, 6 patents, and several book chapters, and is a full member of the editorial committee of Micromachines and the Journal of Advances in Materials Science and Engineering, prestigious journals in the field of micro and nanomaterials and of innovative technologies applied to engineering. The international research collaborations that Dr Lamberti has established up until today range from the US, to Europe, to Australia on subjects relating to nanomaterials and nanotechnologies applied to devices for electronics and energy. He is also a representative of the International Commission on Nanomaterials of the International Union for Vacuum Science, Technique, and Applications (IUVSTA) and member of the Governing Board of the Italian Association of Science and Technology (AIV).