Whether we realize it or not, we use Nickel every day in our lives. Nickel can be found in household appliances and products, electronics, jewelry, coins, buildings, stainless steel, magnets, and even in our bodies, as a trace element. Nickel also has several important industrial applications as a catalyst, in both oxidation and reduction reactions, used for example in oil refining and hydrogenation reactions. An important application of Nickel towards the transition to carbon-neutral energy is its catalytic activity for Hydrogen production. Can Nickel be part of the solution for clean energy production in the future?
We believe it can. Researchers involved in the NICKEFFECT project are developing Nickel-based coatings for several applications, including the catalytic production of Hydrogen. While this reaction is already applied on a commercial scale, it typically uses Platinum as the catalyst, a scarce and expensive element. Instead, the researchers involved in NICKEFFECT aim to develop Platinum-free systems for the production of Hydrogen using renewable electricity at a commercial scale. One of the challenges we are facing is to develop Nickel-based catalysts which can compete with the current Platinum-based systems in terms of catalytic activity, sustainability, health risks and costs.
While our novel catalysts are still under development and pending characterization, the NICKEFFECT project has reached a milestone in sustainability assessment. For this, the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach was used: a systematic, standardized methodology to analyze the environmental impacts of a process or product considering the entire lifecycle: from the extraction of raw materials from nature to the End of Life (e.g., recycling or landfilling). This approach helps us identify “hot spots” of environmental impacts, which can be targeted for mitigation or replacement by our colleagues in the laboratory. Furthermore, it can help us decide between process or material alternatives, selecting the ones with the lowest impacts, while achieving the same technical performance. Environmental impact assessment at early stages of development, as performed in NICKEFFECT, can help guide innovation from a sustainability perspective. Finally, analyzing sustainability from a lifecycle perspective and over multiple impact categories, such as human health, ecosystem health and resource depletion, helps us prevent problem-shifting between lifecycle stages and impact categories.
In our first complete LCA, we analyzed different catalysts under development in the NICKEFFECT project from cradle to grave. Several hotspots of impacts were identified, such as the use of electricity and certain solvents. In addition, process alternatives were compared, achieving up to 70% decrease in climate change potential impacts from adaptations to the production process of Nickel-based catalysts. Our recommendations towards replacing certain solvents and decreasing the duration of electricity-consuming manufacturing steps will help achieve the Sustainable-by-Design development of materials in the future of the NICKEFFECT project. We look forward to continuing guiding innovation using this green metal salt towards a greener future!