Fast-Start grant supports UC-led research on energy-saving nanotechnology

20 February 2020

Many raw materials used in everyday consumer goods are produced using industrial separation and purification processes that are incredibly energy-intensive. With the support of a $300,000 Fast-Start grant from the Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, UC researcher Dr Matthew Cowan is leading a project to develop innovative energy saving alternatives.

  • Matthew Cowan

    UC chemical and biological engineering lecturer Dr Matthew Cowan is leading a project to develop innovative energy saving alternatives.

Tiny yet complex nano-crystals made of molecular chicken wire may sound like unlikely candidates to save the world from burgeoning energy over-consumption, but for UC Chemical and Biological Engineering lecturer Dr Matthew Cowan they hold a lot of exciting potential.

He is leading research to explore using the molecular chicken wire to create new membrane technology that could eventually replace today’s energy-hungry industrial separation processes, which currently account for eight percent of global energy use.

“In particular, the purification of ethylene by distillation – used to make many plastics and chemicals – requires more energy than New Zealand currently generates,” says Dr Cowan, who observes that improving energy efficiency in this area would be both economically and environmentally beneficial.

Other researchers on this ground-breaking project, which has been awarded a prestigious three-year Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant, are UC Professor Paul Kruger and US-based Professor Gregory Parsons of North Carolina State University.

The membrane processes under investigation would use only a fraction of the energy required for traditional distillation separation.

“Imagine the energy required to filter water, compared to boiling it,” suggests Dr Cowan.

He and his fellow researchers aim to produce high performing, defect-free thin-film membranes of molecular chicken wire, suitable for industrial applications. Currently, no sure production method exists for this.

“We will investigate fundamental strategies to develop a general method for producing these high performance membranes within tubular ceramic supports, allowing their widespread implementation into the existing and future separation processes that support our everyday lives.”

This is one of six 2019 Marsden Fund Fast-Start grants of $300,000 awarded to UC, recognising the university’s emerging researchers. Another six standard Marsden Fund grants of between $530,000 and $960,000 were also awarded to UC. Covering four of UC’s five colleges, the grants acknowledge and support world-class research across a variety of disciplines.

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