Creating new nanomaterials fit for the EU’s sustainable energy goals

19 Aug 2021

Image: Dr Shalini Singh

Limerick researcher Dr Shalini Singh is using nanoscience to develop ultra-thin materials that can address the demands of next-generation energy technologies.

University of Limerick lecturer Dr Shalini Singh first began researching nanomaterials in Gujarat, following an MSc in chemistry from Dharmsinh Desai University. A structured PhD programme from INSPIRE, the Integrated NanoScience Platform for Ireland, then brought her to University of Limerick.

In 2016, she earned her PhD for her work designing multicomponent semiconductor nanocrystals using colloidal chemistry. She furthered this research on colloidal nanocrystals, also known as quantum dots, at Ghent University in Belgium. Her work in Belgium involved designing novel semiconductors for photonic applications.

Just before lockdown struck in 2020, Singh returned to University of Limerick where her research now focuses on developing nanostructures for energy conversion and storage applications.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My neighbours’ son and daughter-in-law are scientists. When I was growing up, I was fascinated by their jobs. I thought that is the coolest job anyone can have.

They both worked in biotechnology and this inspired me to become a scientist. I visited them for career advice when I decided to do a master’s in chemistry. I was worried about the job market as chemistry was not a ‘trendy’ subject. Also, the 2008 global recession had just begun.

I remember their advice: “A chemistry degree will never leave you unemployed … If the job market remains down, start giving tuition to college students.” That advice still puts a smile on my face.

While I was searching for a PhD position, I saw an advertisement for a position at University of Limerick. The description said that the candidate would be trained on transmission electron microscopes. For me, that was the selling point. I wanted to take images of nanocrystals with atomic resolution. High-quality TEM images of nanocrystals still make my day.

What research are you currently working on?

I am a nanomaterial chemist. My research career started from designing polymeric nanocomposites (as a research fellow in India), to analysing the crystal structure of multi-element inorganic nanocrystals (during my PhD in Ireland), to understanding the relationship between the nanocrystal surface and their opto-electronic properties (as a postdoctoral fellow in Belgium). This research journey has been built upon the possibilities of designing and tuning the structure and property of novel nanomaterials for technological applications.

Currently, my research focus is on synthesising ultra-thin nanomaterials composed of few atomic layers by a bottom-up approach. Creating them atom-by-atom using molecular precursors provides vast opportunities to engineer their structure, dimensions and properties. By using different spectroscopic and microscopic techniques, we gain a proper understanding of the stoichiometry, crystal structure, morphology, opto-electronic properties and surface chemistry of synthesised nanomaterials. Further, depending on their electronic properties, we study their potential as electrode materials for batteries or electrocatalysts.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The entire focus of my research is on creating new nanomaterials and optimising their properties for addressing the multi-faceted demands of next-generation energy technologies. My research is aligned to the EU’s 2030 climate and energy framework and 2050 energy strategy.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

High-performance and solution-processable nanocrystals for batteries and electrochemical conversion. For instance, we now find 2D-layered nanomaterials in composites with enhanced mechanical or thermal properties, batteries, inks for printable electronics, photodetectors, flexible devices and supercapacitors.

Academia and industry are striving to develop reproducible and scalable ways for the synthesis of 2D materials, as well as for their characterisation, processing and integration in applications. I am working towards designing synthetic and processing protocols that will serve as a platform technology for easier lab-to-fab transition of these materials.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a nanoscientist?

I started my lecturer and independent research career merely two months before the first lockdown in Ireland. Before I could build up competence in my new role, Covid-19 changed the working situation.

Keeping lab experiments going with a constant fear of lab shutdown was stressful. Obtaining and maintaining funding for research has become even more challenging. Creating a collaborative research network and consortia for grant applications has suffered because of travel restrictions and no in-person conferences or meetings.

We have started looking for alternative ways to connect with researchers and collaborate. I hope, in the coming years, things will be back to normal.

Are there any common misconceptions about nanoscience?

There are a few misconceptions because I don’t think the concept of nanotechnology research is very well understood by the public.

People get excited when I mention nanoscience but then the questions come. Are you working with proteins? Or is your work associated with the nanotechnology skincare products advertised on TV? I try to explain the different research areas where nanotechnology is applied or how different disciplines of science employ nanotechnological methods in research.

Also, there is a common concern that all nanomaterials are toxic or carcinogenic. Nanochemistry or nanoparticles are not necessarily dangerous. Yes, nanoparticles can be composed of toxic elements and reducing the size of materials to nanoscale does increase the likelihood of them being inhaled and absorbed by the body. Scientists are trying to replace the toxic elements with eco-friendly elements. Good lab safety regulations ensure that working with nanoparticles is as safe as any other area of material chemistry research.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I am a big advocate for sustainable energy research. Climate change and global warming are real issues. Carbon dioxide concentration is at its highest level in 800,000 years.

I would like to see a fully sustainable global energy landscape in the coming years. Obviously, it would require a joint effort from scientists, policymakers, investors and businesses around the world to achieve global connectivity of solar, wind and hydro power to reduce non-renewable energy usage.

My research aims to develop high-performance and processable nanomaterials constructed from non-toxic and earth-abundant inorganics for photovoltaics, batteries and electrocatalytic reduction of CO2. I hope, in the coming decade, sustainable energy consumption improves.

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