Annual Review 2021: Sustainable Earth

Scientists and students help unlock secrets of rare uk meteorite

Scientists from the University have helped to uncover the secrets of a rare meteorite which could possibly reveal the origins of oceans and life on Earth. Research carried out on the Winchcombe meteorite, which fell in and around the Gloucestershire town in early 2021, has estimated the space rock dates to the beginning of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.

Since the discovery, UK planetary scientists – including Dr Natasha Stephen and colleagues in the University’s Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC) – have been determining its mineralogy and chemistry to better understand how the solar system formed. They have found the meteorite is a carbonaceous chondrite – a stony material, rich in water and organic matter, which has retained its chemistry from the formation of the solar system.

It’s the first time we’ve had a British meteorite in the lab. The small planetary geology group we have here are all helping, thanks to Science and Technology Facilities Council funding, so it’s been a fantastic catalyst for a new study bringing together academics, technicians and students.

Dr Natasha Stephen, Lecturer in Advanced Analysis (Earth and Planetary Sciences), and Director of PEMC.

Natasha Stephen Scientific Officer (Analytical Microscopy) School of Marine Science and Engineering (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

Collaboration to focus on recycling of precious components in electric vehicle batteries

A new University-industry collaboration has been launched to develop and refine a new approach to recycling precious metals contained within electric vehicle batteries. The process has been pioneered by UK-based critical metals specialist Altilium Metals Ltd and is being validated and optimised under a research programme with the University. It sees end-of-life lithium-ion EV batteries recycled through the extraction and recovery of the lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese components. The spent cathode material is leached in acid, with the resulting metals and lithium separated by selective precipitation and the graphite extracted as a purified solid. The final product is a chemical combination of metals and lithium which can be sold direct to battery manufacturers, compared to pure metals which require further processing.

To achieve UK net zero carbon emissions within the automotive and chemical manufacturing sectors, development of truly circular manufacturing practices is key. Our novel process looks to minimise reliance on imported battery-critical raw materials from overseas, ensuring future production and energy security, as we transition towards an electric vehicle-dominant transport sector.

Dr Lee Durndell, Lecturer in Chemistry.

€2.5 million to develop sustainable soils from construction waste and by-products

Waste from the construction industry and dredged sediments could provide a safe and sustainable source of healthy soils thanks to a new crossChannel research project. The €2.5 million ReCon Soil project, supported by €1.8 million from the European Regional Development Fund via the Interreg France (Channel) England programme, is being led by researchers with extensive experience in the development of reconstructed soils and the wider physical and social impacts of soil erosion and degradation. Working with a variety of partners, they will develop and roll out at least three new soil recipes made from locally sourced construction waste, dredged sediments and agricultural by-products. These will be thoroughly investigated in laboratories, and then further assessed in the field at sites in the UK and France, to monitor their effectiveness and potential environmental impact.

Human intervention to sustain and improve soil was an ancient practice in the Amazon Basin and reconstructed soils can unquestionably be part of future solutions to soil health and climate mitigation. This project offers the exciting prospect of focusing the scientific and practical expertise of the project team to develop healthy soils and enable this process to be rolled out in the UK, France and beyond.

Professor Mark Fitzsimons, Associate Professor of Environmental Chemistry and the project’s Principal Investigator.

<p>Enclosed habitat inside a biome structure</p>
<p>Dr Mark Fitzsimons<br></p>

Funding to research the mysterious process of ‘seafloor spreading’

Geology researchers have secured a grant of more than £650,000 to conduct research into the mysterious volcanic activity that shapes the planet’s oceanic crust. The process, known as seafloor spreading, sees magma move and solidify, adding millions of kilos of new material to the Earth’s crust every second. What controls the magma’s migration is not understood – but thanks to the funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the team at Plymouth will study an ancient section of seafloor now exposed on land in the Oman mountains and use a combination of analytical methods to determine the pathways followed by magma.

The formation of new oceanic crust represents the largest magmatic system on Earth and involves the cooling and solidification of magma along the 70,000 km global network of seafloor spreading axes. Since the rocks of the deep oceans are inaccessible, scientists have largely had to employ geophysical experiments to investigate the subseafloor. This project offers us exciting opportunities to read the rock record of these magma processes in unprecedented detail to create a comprehensive picture of one of the building blocks of our planet.

Professor Antony Morris, Professor of Geophysics and Geodynamics.

Researchers begin construction of unique living lab on campus

This is the start of an exciting new applied research phase for CobBauge, where we have an opportunity to put into practice the exciting findings from the laboratory. We will create a living lab and demonstration site that will become the centre of attention for a wide range of people – from construction professionals to built environment students.

Professor Steve Goodhew, Professor of Environmental Building and the project’s Principal Investigator.

Construction has begun of a new building on the University campus made from a development of the centuries-old building material, cob. The single-storey building is to be a classroom and laboratory with researchers monitoring the performance of the new walling material, as well as demonstrating it to future building designers, contractors, housing associations and interested stakeholders. The construction is the latest phase of the award-winning Interreg VA France (Channel) England-funded CobBauge project, which is investigating whether an optimised version of cob can become a sustainable solution for a new generation of energy-efficient housing. Cob has a low embodied energy and is viewed by many as supporting the move to a net zero future.

Steve Goodhew, Professor Steve Goodhew, Professor of Environmental Building, University of Plymouth

Construction of a new building on the University campus made from a
development of the centuries-old building material, cob.<br></p>