A powerful force for a circular economy
As a child, Dr Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo was fascinated by how things worked – so much so that she found herself pulling things apart in order to put them back together again.
“It’s about solving problems,” Dr Pozo-Gonzalo says. “I have always had that curiosity. When I was little, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I had a music box that I dismantled. I just wanted to see what was really making that music and understand how it was working.”
This innate curiosity has led Dr Pozo-Gonzalo on an impressive career – now a chemist and electrochemist scientist, her work in research areas ranging from materials to electrooptic devices, to more recently energy storage, has led her from Spain to the UK and all the way to Australia.
With more than 90 publication outcomes, Dr Pozo-Gonzalo is now considered a “go-to” expert in rare metal recovery and sustainable energy storage. Over her career she has been invited to present her research results at 18 international conferences and six seminars focusing on electrochemistry, energy and ionic liquids.
In 2021, she was invited to deliver talks at the 14th International Symposium in Electromaterials Science where she presented a talk on the electrolyte/electrode interface in Sodium-O2 batteries; the 2021 ACES Full Centre Meeting where she spoke about sustainable batteries based on sodium and oxygen; and 240th Electrochemical Society (ECS) meeting where she spoke on sustainable neodymium recovery using an electrochemical approach.
She was also one of two academics to speak at the industry-focused PV Magazine’s 2021 All-Energy Australia Insight on Quality online conference. The conference explored energy in Australia and addressed the problematic nature of lithium-ion batteries, their storage and recycling.
“I was invited specifically to talk about the circular economy in energy storage, which is one of the activities I have been leading in the group for the last couple of years, focusing on the impact of batteries once they reach the end of life and approaches on how to deal with end of life batteries,” Dr Pozo-Gonzalo says.
“I have delivered several presentations on that topic during the last few years. I really want people and researchers to be aware that our research can have some negative consequences — we can solve one problem, but we might be creating another one. So we just need to have this in mind when we think of new technologies and new material chemistries. We need to think of the consequences when the devices reach their end of life.”
Dr Pozo-Gonzalo has also been on the editorial board for Sustainable Chemistry since 2020 and was guest editor for the special issue: “Circular Economy in Energy Storage Materials” due at the end of 2021.
Her guest editor appointment follows on from the successful article she wrote for The Conversation about her team’s sustainable methodology on the recovery of rare earth material neodymium metal. The piece has made a significant impact, attracting more than 50,000 reads and the interest of industry partners and venture capitals.
Dr Pozo-Gonzalo has also been invited to write a chapter as sole author for the Encyclopedia of Ionic Liquids on “electrochemistry and electrowinning of rare earth metals in ionic liquids”.
What area of research do you specialise in?
Currently, I am working on sustainable energy storage technologies, covering different research areas, including: designing materials for longevity and ease of recycling; emerging energy storage technologies, that require low cost and abundant materials and minimise the impact in the environment; and finally, I work in the recycling of materials from end-of-life devices to repurpose in the same or different applications.
Additionally, I have been growing a new research area on critical raw materials recovery, such as rare earth metals, which are essential to our everyday – laptops, mobiles and electric vehicles – and, in large-scale clean technologies, such as wind turbines. However, sources of these materials are scarce, geolocalised, and also coextracted with radioactive species such as thorium and uranium. Therefore, my research focuses on sustainable methods to recover rare earth metals from end-of-life products or by-side products from mining, as examples.
What makes you passionate about this area?
I feel very passionate about reducing the amount of waste that we generate every day. That is the reason I started focusing my research on circular economy, considering the source of the materials we use in our research and also the impact of end-of-life products on the environment.
Why is your research important and how will it make a difference?
My research aims to use end-of-life products as a source of materials in general. That is the case of spent batteries where valuable, scarce and sometimes toxic materials such as Co, Ni, Mn and Li are present. Similarly, this is applicable to rare earth metals. My research focuses on using more sustainable, less energetic and simpler methods to recover such valuable metals. Electrochemical methods, combined with coordination chemistry and synthesis of new electrolyte compositions are the core of my research.
In this specific area of rare earth materials, I would like to see new companies emerging with a focus in recycling end-of-life products. That’s our goal. As a university, obviously we have some limitations in terms of facilities and capital but we can contribute with our knowledge and research.
Our industry partners, AMF Magnetics and Stanwell share our goal and mission. They both would like something happening here in Australia in the recycling of magnets and recovery of materials from by-products, so we are currently working together to make that happen.