An energy scientist from Sydney using neutron scattering to find a way to store hydrogen for fuel cells and pave the way for a clean-fuelled future.
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The world is at a crossroads when it comes to energy technology but the research being done by Vanessa Peterson is helping to map the route ahead.
Vanessa is driven to create a world of energy-generation in which the only by-product is water. As head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's Energy Project, she is working with some of the world's top instruments and collaborating with the field's best international researchers to make it happen.
Hydrogen is the focus of research to develop portable clean energy for use in transport, but how to store hydrogen for use in hydrogen fuel cells without using energy-intensive compression has been a stumbling block in the science. Vanessa has taken important steps towards solving this by using a technique called neutron scattering to show for the first time how hydrogen is absorbed and released by the materials that may provide storage capacity.
Neutron scattering entails firing a beam of neutrons - parts of an atom - at a sample material and mapping how they disperse after coming into contact. This provides a picture of how the different atoms and molecules are arranged and moving, and can provide this information in real time. It is information that can't be obtained using any other method - particularly when looking at how hydrogen interacts with different materials and therefore how it may be stored. The technique enables us to see this interaction while the material is functioning, key to understanding the storage mechanism.
"In the case of hydrogen, we can see directly where the hydrogen is and that is really important in developing a material that you can easily get hydrogen in and out of," says Vanessa, who balances her subatomic investigations with lunchtime rock-climbing, scaling cliff-faces close to the Sydney lab.
More recently, Vanessa and her team have used the same method to discover a new mechanism of hydrogen transport through a proton exchange membrane that will greatly increase the electrical output from future hydrogen fuel-cells.
Vanessa's research is also using neutron scattering to look at ways to improve the efficiency of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
Devising an effective hydrogen storage mechanism would enable the development of zero pollution highly efficient portable hydrogen fuel cells that could be used in cars. Coupled with more efficient rechargeable lithium-ion batteries this would greatly extend the range of electric cars with the least possible impact on the environment.
"The underlying importance of this research is that we need a discovery. Incrementalism in any of these technologies probably isn't going to cut it."
Thanks to Vanessa's initiative and drive, the Sydney facility is now at the cutting edge of global hydrogen storage and lithium-ion battery development.
But the forefront of science wasn't always an obvious career-path for the young Sydneysider. Growing up in Sydney's western suburbs, Vanessa briefly considered business before a mentor pointed out that science would teach her how to tackle further learning.
"I was very taken with learning how to teach myself and how to discover things."
Vanessa works at the Bragg Institute at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and her work was nominated for the Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher.
How will your research help mitigate or reverse the affects of climate change?
Creating a global energy system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable is unquestionably one of the largest challenges facing the scientific and engineering communities today. Alternative energy sources, new materials, and gas sequestration technologies have risen as a result of the combined needs for energy and environmental sustainability, with the focus moving increasingly away from more traditional combustion of fossil fuels. In Australia, energy for transport is responsible for significant CO2 emissions and 40 % of energy consumption. Our research is aimed at technology that will reduce Australia's carbon emissions, through the development of lightweight batteries for transportation applications and hydrogen-based energy storage for extended range capabilities in hybrid fuel-cell electric vehicles. Essentially, the work aims to develop and improve new and existing materials for hydrogen storage, batteries, and portable fuel cells. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are at the leading edge of technologies for use in electric vehicles, the international market for which is predicted to exceed US$37 billion by 2020. In order to meet this increasing demand it is essential for researchers to develop electrodes made from durable, nontoxic, and inexpensive materials with a high charge/discharge rate and a high reversible capacity. Our research has yielded new insights into the mechanism of charge transfer within batteries and the limits under which this transfer is effective. In order to extend driving range, even the best battery will need to be coupled with another supplementary technology. The most effective clean energy technology to combine with electric vehicles is hydrogen. Hybrid electric fuel-cell vehicle technology is widely recognized as the best alternative to the traditional combustion engine, and research into these high-tech devices has been embraced by a number of car manufacturers. Significant improvements in both hydrogen storage and fuel cell systems need to be made before fuel-cell vehicle technology can be fully realised. Our research using framework materials to capture hydrogen and methane provides the ideal foundation for research to address issues surrounding CO2 sequestration and conversion technologies. This has led to recent support gained as part of a significant collaborative effort entitled "Solving the Energy Roadblock". This is the newest arm of our research project, and is focussed on CO2 capture, conversion, and storage in framework materials. It is expected to drive significant discovery research in this area vital to the future of Australia's approach to climate change.
How soon do you think your research could be applied to real world problems?
Some of the research is being applied now in that we are working on materials used in components that supply and store energy - such as battery materials.
I am doing a task on researching a scientist and I have chosen you. Where were you born and when? Where did you study and live? What is your marital status?
Liverpool Hospital, 29th May 1977
I went to Miller kindergarten, Busby primary, and was lucky enough to get into the first year of the Selective high school program (the trial year!) at Sefton high. I then was accepted into the University of Technology, Sydney, where I majored in Applied Chemistry, before embarking on a separate honours and graduate program. The highest qualification that I have is a Doctor of Philosophy (Doctorate) from the University of Technology, in Sydney.
I lived on the Hume highway in housing commission flats until I was about 2, when my (single and disabled) mum got a housing commission house in Busby, with a bit more room for my brother and I. When I was slightly older I moved in with my grandmother in Merrylands, before moving to Chippendale to live closer to University, I have since lived in many places around Sydney's Inner West, before moving to a few places in and around Washington DC in the USA, before moving back to Sydney 9Inner West). I now live in Tempe.
I am married.