How UL’s Bernal Institute is turning to nature to aid future energy woes

19 Oct 2017

Dr Michéal Scanlon will lead a new electrochemistry research group at the Bernal Institute. Image: Luke Maxwell

With some guidance from nature, the Bernal Institute is hoping to solve renewable energy’s biggest problem: unnecessary wastage.

As Ireland prepares for a future less reliant on the importing of fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy such as wind, wave and solar, we will first need to overcome some major problems, none bigger than energy storage.

Looking at solar in particular, in a country such as Ireland, energy generation can often be intermittent and, in some cases, our supply might actually outstrip demand, leading to considerable energy wastage.

Dr Michéal Scanlon, a lecturer at the University of Limerick (UL), is taking inspiration from nature in order to develop one solution.

To do this, he has established a new electrochemistry research group at the Bernal Institute, UL’s advanced research lab, which last August announced that it was to be led by two new directors, Prof Michael Zaworotko and Prof Gavin Walker, each a leader in their respective fields.

Vast resources at Bernal Institute

As the lead of this new group, Scanlon will use the vast resources available to him at the Bernal Institute to develop advanced new materials in water-oil interfaces.

Speaking with, Scanlon said that with the technology and advanced materials available to them in the lab, it would be possible to turn energy from renewable sources directly into chemicals.

“To do all of this, we need to both create batteries and to create new approaches to solar fuel generation; we need these advanced materials [developed at the Bernal Institute],” Scanlon said.

With funding from Science Foundation Ireland and the European Research Council, Scanlon and his team will now look to mimic artificial photosynthesis, similar to what you would find in a biological cell.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic