QMUL research could lead to biochar breakthrough

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Researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and University College London (UCL) in collaboration with Diamond Light Source, the UK's national synchrotron, have imaged the porosity of biochars for the first time.
The unprecedented operando experiments were led by Dr Roberto Volpe of QMUL, whose work to address existing knowledge gaps within the thermochemical decomposition of biomass could result in the production of purpose-specific biochars for environmental applications.
Dr Volpe’s current research involves examining and identifying the chars created from raw biomass of almond and walnut shells as their porosity is key to environmental applications.
The ability to customise the morphology of these chars could herald a great breakthrough to help address global challenges by creating inexpensive and renewable solutions to energy storage, catalysis, water and soil remediation. Tracking the morphology of biomass during biochar production is the first step towards achieving this.
“What we do is simple as we take almond and walnut shells and we put them through pyrolysis to create a char biomass – the study of carbonisation of biomass essentially reflects techniques dating back to the beginning of mankind by turning wood into charcoal," said Dr Volpe.
"However, in our study, the process is monitored every step of the way and what we are interested in, is the porosity that is being created. By accurately heating, we can form up to more than a thousand square metres of accessible surface area in the intricate network of pores inside a single gram of formed biochars.”
He added: “Applications for this work are many as contaminants (bacteria, metals, polluting molecules) or ions (in the case of energy storage) can be carried by water (or by an electrolyte) into the intra-particle pore network, and they can be trapped there. Tracking the evolution of this pore network as we heat the biomass particles is key and the real novelty of this work.”
Diamond has worked with Dr Volpe on a new specific data intensive technique used at the synchrotron to accelerate access to results, with the support of a European Horizon 2020 grant called ExPaNDs - European Open Science Cloud (EOSC) Photon and Neutron Data Service.
"[The] sharing of such large and complex sets of information is challenging and the ExPaNDS grant helped identify better ways to deliver data management which is really useful to speed up results and transparency,” Dr Volpe said.
Dr Paul Quinn, science group leader for Diamond, continued: “Imaging techniques at Diamond allow the team to visualise the structure of the solid particle with enough detail to examine small gaps or pores and track any changes over time and with variations in temperature.
"This means that we can extract a great deal of detail about the evolution of these pores and their intricate geometry.  This result sheds light on the fundamental behaviour of thermally treated biomass, and, at the same time, allows Dr Volpe and his team to uniquely correlate the particle and pores geometry to temperature.”
He adds: “This a great achievement made possible by the dedication of the scientists in my team. Dr Christoph Rau and the many others who have contributed to and supported the complex measurements, from advice on experiment feasibility, to experimental setup of the furnace to create the correct environment and optimal X-ray imaging conditions, to mining the wealth of data generated.”
As petabytes of data are produced in synchrotrons every year, the need for collaboration and a coordinated approach with these huge data sets is an issue facing most scientists /researchers especially those working in large scale facilities in the UK and Europe. according to Diamond.
To increase the value of this data, it needs to follow key principles ultimately be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). These principles will help make data eventual open to all, the organisation added. A key goal of ExPaNDS is to make it easier to find and share research data which will help prevent repetition of experiments, spur scientific progress and make synchrotron data FAIR. A second goal of ExPaNDS is to provide guidelines on managing data to support sharing and reuse.
The ExPaNDS project is a collaboration between 10 national Photon and Neutron Research Infrastructures (PaN RIs).  This community covers virtually all fields of research with a huge diversity in data management approaches.  This makes harmonisation a challenge.
Professor Dr Helmut Dosch, chairman of the Board of Directors for DESY, which is the leading partner in the ExPaNDS grant concluded: "We can now create solutions these days and in the future even more so - atom by atom, you know materials which can be used for fighting climate change and diseases. But this data, this information is coming with a huge avalanche of data to us, and we need concepts how to turn this data in to useful information and to knowledge. ​It needs the right people; it needs the right infrastructure, and it needs financial resources. But I only can say now that knowledge is expensive, but ignorance we cannot afford.”

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