Scientists unveil green technique to convert waste wood heat into electricity

Schematic representation of the preparation of lignin-derived membranes. Credit: Advanced Functional Materials (2023).

Researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland, in a groundbreaking study, have discovered an eco-friendly way to turn waste heat into electricity using something you might not expect: wood products.

This innovative method not only promises to reduce costs but also to lessen the environmental impact, making it a big win for sustainable energy.

The study was carried out by the smart minds at UL, with some help from their colleagues at the University of Valencia.

They found a new use for lignin, a natural substance found in wood that’s usually left over from the paper and pulp industries. While most people haven’t given lignin much thought, the researchers saw its potential as a key player in green energy.

Their research focused on using lignin-derived membranes to convert low-grade heat into electricity.

Low-grade heat is essentially the leftover warmth from various processes, like industrial operations, that’s not hot enough (below 200 degrees Celsius) for conventional power generation.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the waste heat produced in industries falls into this low-grade category, so finding a way to use it could significantly change how we think about energy.

Before this study, similar electricity-generation techniques had been tried with cellulose from natural wood.

However, the UL team took it a step further by successfully applying the method to lignin from waste wood. This not only helps in cutting down waste but also supports a circular economy, where resources are reused and recycled as much as possible.

The technology works by harnessing the movement of charged atoms, or ions, within the lignin membranes. As these ions move, they generate electricity from the waste heat.

Professor Maurice N Collins, who led the research at UL’s School of Engineering and the Bernal Institute, highlighted the importance of finding uses for low-grade heat. He pointed out that it’s abundant but underutilized because there haven’t been cost-effective ways to convert it into electricity until now.

Muhammad Muddasar, the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student working on the NXTGENWOOD project at the Bernal Institute, explained that their lignin-based membrane is not only lightweight and easy to make but also biocompatible. This means it could have various applications beyond just generating electricity, such as in temperature sensing and health monitoring.

The NXTGENWOOD project, part of the Science Federation Ireland’s Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER), aims to create new, valuable uses for Irish wood. This research is a step towards that goal, showing that lignin can be an effective material for harvesting thermal energy, especially in situations where being environmentally friendly and cost-saving are key.

While there’s still more work to be done in improving how efficiently this technology can convert heat to electricity, this study lays the groundwork for using lignin in a way that benefits both the planet and our energy needs.

It’s a promising development in the quest for sustainable energy solutions, demonstrating once again that sometimes, the answers to our modern challenges can be found in the natural world around us.

The study was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Source: KSR.