'Waste material contains precious metals in very low quantities, which renders their separation difficult,’ she says. ‘For lithium batteries, material with high purity are required, as impurities reduce a battery's lifespan. Our ongoing research demonstrates that precious metals can be recovered form battery waste and processed to active materials that have excellent initial performance.’
Energy in transition
In addition to the work Aalto University is doing on electro-chemical devices and their catalysts, there are also research groups taking a sociological perspective on the world's transition to sustainable energy. Professor Armi Temmes from the School of Business leads much of this work.
‘As intermittent energy production from renewables is increasing all the time, so the ways to manage this energy are becoming more and more important,’ says Temmes. ‘Major technology shifts like this not only change the way people think and act, they also change the actors behind the scenes.’
A case in point is the way in which the electricity production and heat generation industries are becoming more intertwined. Until now, electricity has been generated from heat, which in turn has been generated through burning various fuels. But today, with more and more renewable power being fed into the grid, electricity is increasingly being used to produce heat with heat pumps, for example. This supply-side shift is particularly pertinent in Finland, where central heating is so important for much of the year.
Working together with VTT, Finland's state-owned research centre, Temmes and her team have modelled a way in which the entire grid for both electricity and heating could, in the future, be based on renewable energy sources.
‘To eliminate coal and other fossil fuels in Finland, we need much deeper integration in the production, use and distribution of electricity and heat,’ she says. ‘We would need a massive increase in wind energy for generating electricity to power large-scale heat pumps, which are very flexible and could meet a lot of our heating needs.’
Another area of Temmes's team's work is studying demand-response flexibility in the power grid, i.e. finding ways to smartly adjust electricity consumption without a noticeable effect on people or commerce. Systems for automatically managing these adjustments are beginning to come into use with industrial customers, such as shopping centres, but it will be some time before we see widespread adoption at the consumer level.
‘Demand-response models are developing, but they're still very difficult to introduce at the consumer scale, as the equipment behind them is far too expensive to make this business profitable,’ says Temmes. ‘So we're looking into the emerging business models in this area to understand how they could develop.’
Planning policy together
Aalto University has also been active in studying the policy implications of the transition to a sustainable energy grid, acting as a facilitator in bringing actors with different interests together at the same table. Under the leadership of Professor Sampsa Hyysalo at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, paths were developed for eight different areas of the energy transition challenge. The advantage of this collaborative method is that the participants can constructively find ways to achieve the ambitious but necessary objectives for mitigating climate change.
‘The crucial thing is that in the future we need to look beyond just energy production,’ says Temmes. ‘We now have a way to produce clean energy, but we just don't have the rest of the system in place yet.’
Text: Andrew Flowers