SFU Chemistry student wins international award with innovative take on plastics for renewable energy

March 02, 2023

Chemistry PhD candidate Kate Fraser won 3rd place in the 2022 Young Persons’ World Lecture Competition (YPWLC) with her presentation on the untapped potential of highly conductive plastics in addressing the global energy crisis.

After placing first in Canada, Kate advanced to the YPWLC finals in the UK to present her lecture about ‘Plastics for Renewable Energy Devices.’ Kate highlights that plastics can improve the performance of alkaline-based devices, like fuel cells, resulting in less environmental damage, less energy losses and higher device efficiency. 

“I think of plastic as a necessary evil for the development of alternative energy sources,” she says. “Plastic is so flexible and lightweight that it makes a perfect replacement for the heavy liquids that were traditionally acting as the electrolyte in fuel cells.” 

In her lecture Kate envisions a hydrogen economy where plastics play the key role. Plastics are solid electrolytes that conduct electricity. Their properties allow them to endure highly caustic and high temperature conditions that can reduce the cost of producing and using fuel cells for generating electricity from hydrogen.  

Kate’s strong love for the outdoors kindled her passion for renewable energy to tackle environmental issues and led to her pursuit of a career in chemistry. Since starting university, her research has revolved around alternative energy sources. “I want to save the planet for future generations,” she says.

After completing her master’s degree in the UK, Kate became interested in plastic, or polymer, as an essential material for a net-zero carbon economy. Then, she came across SFU’s Holdcroft Group, whose research focus is polymers for electrochemical energy, and decided to choose SFU for her PhD research. 

At Holdcroft Group, Kate focuses on the development of ion exchange membranes for integration into fuel cells, electrolysers and CO2 electrolysers to replace fossil fuels.

“The most important thing to consider is to find a method for responsible disposal or reusing of the materials,” she notes. There is a need to increase the durability of plastics integrated in fuel cells so that they can last a lifetime.

There is still a long way to go. However, the development of new plastics can help hydrogen to compete with gasoline and mitigate environmental issues that humans are facing.

“I would like to think my research as a brick (or maybe a few!) in the road to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources,” she expresses.