Safely meeting demand for renewable energy with innovative material design for health and sustainability


In 2017, the Department of Materials Design and Innovation at the University of Buffalo, Clean Production Action, and Niagara Share created the Collaboratory for a Regenerative Environment (CoRE). CoRE brings together academic experts in materials design with entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations to accelerate clean production and sustainable materials in the renewable energy economy. Our innovative collaborations and data-driven tools enable business, government, and nonprofit leaders to identify and select inherently safer chemicals and sustainable materials for a healthy renewable energy economy. Over the past three years, CoRE has focused on the solar energy sector and its supply chains.

Currently lacking: A proactive, systemic approach

Many renewable energy industries, including solar energy, depend on hazardous chemicals and novel materials to reduce costs and optimize efficiencies. However, some of these chemistries are unsafe for the environment and human health.  For example, solar energy technologies rely on toxic chemicals, such as lead in solar cells and hydrofluoric acid used in manufacturing processes, which exposes workers in particular to hazardous chemicals throughout the supply chain, from extraction and manufacturing to recycling and disposal of renewable energy technologies.  Published data on current solar manufacturing lifecycle technologies are primarily retrospective and ‘forensic’ in nature; they provide information on the impact of manufacturing and processing strategies after the fact. Important as it is, this approach can, at best, help with remediation, but not in preventing these problems. We need systemic changes in the design and development of renewable energy technologies to accelerate the discovery of safer materials without compromising performance. This can be achieved only through simultaneous and integrated consideration of technical, environmental and social factors in all aspects of the design, development and adoption of renewable energy technologies.

Circular manufacturing

Circular manufacturing is the focus of the pv magazine UP initiative’s current quarterly theme. We have looked at whether adopting circular approaches can create a competitive edge and reap financial and reputational rewards, in addition to investigating what is already being done in the solar industry. You can browse our coverage here.

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Identifying new pathways to accelerate solutions

CoRE’s goal is to reduce the renewable energy economy’s chemical footprint by 50% by 2030 to make significant progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Good Health and Well-Being (#3), Clean Water and Sanitation (#6) and Sustainable Consumption and Production (#12). CoRE is developing a framework to meet this goal by partnering and engaging with business, government, nonprofit and academic leaders to enable wide-scale inclusion of environmental and human health considerations at the front-end in the design of high-performance materials and clean manufacturing processes in the solar sector. CoRE helps by:

  • Identifying pathways to accelerate solutions for safe and clean technologies to benefit all stakeholders;
  • Reducing the chemical footprint of manufacturing operations and the renewable energy sector and its supply chains;
  • Building on our knowledge infrastructure to support research platforms and the translation of that knowledge for stakeholder needs; and
  • Using multiple modes and avenues to engage and share project results with various stakeholder communities.

Such an approach offers the potential to develop and deploy technologies that are capable of delivering better processes, products and outcomes.

Using data to accelerate discovery

While the development of new performance materials typically takes decades, CoRE seeks to accelerate this discovery with data-driven tools that can assess, process, integrate and internalize the technical, environmental and social considerations into the design and development of new high-performance materials. CoRE integrates three platforms by harnessing the common ‘currency’ of data to establish a holistic materials design strategy needed for the development of sustainable renewable energy technologies. These platforms support and inform each other, enabling CoRE to develop more innovative solutions in a more-timely manner.

  • Science Platform: Accelerates the discovery and development of safer materials by advancing state-of-the-art materials informatics that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and data-driven techniques with the fundamentals of the physics, chemistry and engineering of materials.
  • Tools Platform: Organizes and simplifies complex data, thereby enabling decision makers and change agents to assess and measure chemical footprints and make safer substitutions.
  • Stakeholder Platform: Convenes multi-stakeholder groups to co-create, disseminate and implement practical solutions that accelerate business, nonprofit and government decisions and policies for safer chemicals and materials innovation.

The integration of these three platforms helps accelerate the development and use of safer chemicals and sustainable materials in the renewable energy economy.

The Science Platform: Using artificial intelligence to address technical and human needs

Our approach to materials discovery and design is to harness advanced materials informatics and modeling techniques to identify pathways for reducing and eliminating the use of known chemicals and materials of high concern, and replacing them with inherently safer and healthier alternatives without compromising functionality. We have developed an arsenal of multifaceted data-analytical tools, which combines computational materials science and experimental data with machine learning methods, to fuse information in a robust, but accelerated manner.

This approach, known as materials informatics, allows us to (i) assess the overall impact of selected materials and their use; (ii) provide parameters for finding alternatives and target areas for making changes; and (iii) simulate materials properties, structure, and performance. Specifically, we use artificial intelligence (AI) tools coupled with experimental and computational data to provide new insights into the structure-property relationships of materials to significantly accelerate the discovery and design of new materials founded on a concurrent understanding of the mechanisms governing such behavior.

The Science Platform has two broad objectives:

  1. Deploy advanced materials modeling and informatics techniques to identify pathways for the rational design of new materials chemistries for renewable technologies that minimize adverse environmental and human health impacts without compromising functionality. Rational design is a process wherein we predict the performance of various materials chemistries, and then create molecules that have the desired behaviors. CoRE is working on identifying new lead-free material chemistries for state-of-the-art solar devices, such as the perovskite family of materials that is being used for enhanced performance of solar systems. Searching for the proper chemistry of materials that meet multiple functionality metrics of minimal hazard and enhanced engineering performance requires us to explore a chemical search space that is prohibitively large to explore (and make critical discoveries) within a reasonable time frame using traditional methods. CoRE addresses this challenge by applying materials informatics and physics-based modeling to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, which then guides accelerated materials discovery and design for solar technologies
  2. Develop data-driven screening tools that can estimate potential toxicity and inform the design of safer alternatives. CoRE is harnessing advanced machine learning methods to help navigate the complexity of information associated with new and emerging chemicals used in the manufacture of solar devices. Our modeling tools can provide insight into the molecular-scale mechanisms that govern the toxicity of hazardous chemistries. For example, we have developed classification models for persistent and hazardous chemicals such as PFAS compounds and other organic chemistries used in the synthesis of new high-performance solar devices. Additionally, these tools provide guidelines for identifying potential candidates for safer materials chemistries.

The Tools Platform: Shifting the market from toxic to safer chemicals

CoRE’s Tools Platform plays a key role in enabling our strategy of reducing the use of toxic chemicals. Using the discoveries from the Science Platform, including a suite of visualization tools, CoRE co-develops with stakeholders the capabilities for evidence-based decisions. On the demand side, we provide investors, retailers, governments, health care organizations and nonprofits with tools that simplify and clarify their demands for safer chemicals in products, manufacturing operations and supply chains. On the supply side, our tools assist manufacturers and their suppliers in developing corporate-wide chemicals management policies and programs, identifying toxic chemicals as well as safer alternatives, measuring their chemical footprint, setting chemical footprint reduction goals, and reporting their progress to stakeholders and customers.

Part of the Chemical Footprint Project, the chemical footprint wheel visualizes the key benefits to various stakeholders. 

Our tools include:

  • GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals: Assesses and benchmarks chemicals based on their hazards. Companies use GreenScreen benchmark scores to identify chemicals of high concern, safer chemicals, and safer products.
  • The Chemical Footprint Project: Defines metrics for measuring a chemical footprint at the product, packaging, manufacturing, facility and supply chain levels; and assesses and benchmarks corporate progress to safer chemicals. The Chemical Footprint Project Survey uses GreenScreen to identify chemicals of high concern.
  • The Solar Scorecard: Assesses overall corporate performance in the solar industry based on sustainability, social justice and chemical footprint benchmarks.
  • Materials science research tools: AI and materials informatics tools map chemical footprints across the renewable energy sector and fast track safer material development and innovation.

CoRE has also developed interactive visualization tools that are valuable to a broad range of stakeholders. The Science Platform’s tools map material streams and their lifecycle impacts using machine learning tools to close the knowledge gaps on safer substitution of toxic chemicals, and accelerate the development of sustainable, high-performance materials chemistry for solar technologies. CoRE’s application of new AI tools to incorporate diverse, complex, and often poorly organized information—including environmental and human health data sets—into user-friendly assessment tools will help decision-makers understand and apply complex environmental, socio-economic, and health data for safer material innovation and chemical footprinting.

This includes increasing applicability and scalability of such leading hazard assessment tools as the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and quantitative metrics to measure and reduce chemical footprints. The intent is for these decision-making frameworks and tools to make chemicals management and materials innovation more feasible and affordable for industry leaders. These tools help stakeholders effectively use data (including information that may be critical to solving a specific problem) to meet their goals, discover new scientific knowledge, or advocate for a position.

The Stakeholder Platform: Working closely with key organizations

CoRE is modeling a process for stakeholder engagement with people, organizations, and companies – a process that is iterative and capable of incorporating new knowledge arising from scientific discoveries, evolving social and environmental conditions, community impact, and the needs of the local and global economy. Using tools and resources like the Chemical Footprint Project, the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, and MDI’s Safe Manufacturing data analytics to support clean production, the Stakeholder Platform seeks to magnify CoRE’s impact and scale solutions across multiple industrial sectors, including solar.

Through our conferences, symposia and workshops, CoRE shares, disseminates, explores ideas, pilots and tests its solutions with a large network of scientists, business leaders, influencers, investors and representatives of non-governmental organizations. We work in partnership with change agents in the nonprofit advocacy community, the renewable energy industry, and industrial manufacturers to drive industry demand for new cleaner and safer high performance through a variety of benchmarking tools and hazard assessment metrics. For example, CoRE co-created Western New York’s first Clean Production Leadership program with the Western New York Sustainable Business Roundtable (WNY SBR) and renewable energy manufacturers and solar installers (Tesla, Solar Liberty, and Montante Solar) are leading members in the WNY SBR.

We are working with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) to support the development of their next generation Solar Scorecard that seeks to evaluate, compare and impel solar manufacturers to replace toxic chemicals in manufacturing with safer alternatives. Building on Clean Production Action’s relationships with Apple, HP, and other technology leaders, we demonstrated how solar manufacturers can measure and reduce their chemical footprint in manufacturing, supply chains and products.

With investors and Chemical Footprint Project Signatories, we are tailoring the Chemical Footprint Survey for solar manufacturers to demonstrate for the solar industry and its supply chains how corporations can measure and reduce their chemical footprint. We are integrating market-shifting visualization tools into existing and new stakeholder collaborations to expand and hasten companies’ demands to reduce their chemical footprint.

Other collaborations include Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN) that works to reduce corporate financial risks of toxic chemicals in products, manufacturing, and supply chains; BizNGO, a collaboration of businesses and advocacy organizations that advances safer chemicals and sustainable materials; and Chemical Footprint Project signatories—organizations that engage companies in reducing their chemical footprint, which include retailers, NGOs, health care organizations, and investors.

As we align a net positive carbon economy with safer chemicals and sustainable materials, CoRE’s ongoing impact stems from its emphasis on a multi-perspective, multi-organizational approach—the importance of bringing together people and resources in new, more effective ways, to drive innovation and the power of community involvement for transformational and sustained impact in the renewable energy economy.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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