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Engineering Research: Greener, cleaner energy of the future

What makes the UK unusual is the range and breadth of green research being undertaken here. David Williams looks at what is going on.

You might well expect the UK to be leading the green field in big-science projects, but you might not have anticipated how much else is happening here. The UK is unusual because of the range of research that is currently being carried out into alternative sources of energy. This is partly a result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances and partly it is a testament to the strength in depth of the UK’s higher-education sector.

Natural and economic factors

For a start, the UK indeed benefits from the big-science tradition that sees the country being a major player in such areas as fusion, solar power and hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But North Sea oil, coal and gas are also found here, and this means that it is a place where research into making fossil fuels as clean as possible can be done with the relevant expertise to hand. On top of this, in terms of geography and climate, it is also an island on the edge of a continent and a place where weather systems collide, so, as such, it is always going to be a country where wind and marine power can be brought into commercial use. And then there are the economics of the energy market. The UK is very unusual in that it has an open market for energy. The national power companies are not protected, as they are in other countries, and this, it is argued, means that there is no barrier to innovation.

Whatever happened to hot fusion?

Forget wave power, solar panels, fuel cells or bio-energy, the granddaddy of alternative energy has always been nuclear fusion. Imagine harnessing the power of stars to create our energy. Achieve this and all our energy problems would be solved. So why, after half a century of research, hasn’t the miracle happened yet?

According to Nick Holloway of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the long delay has come down to two factors: hope and money, with there being too much of the first and too little of the second.

‘There was a lot of optimism in the early days,’ he admits. ‘People just thought it would be easier to do. Today, however, we are pretty sure we are homing in on the right magnetic configuration that will allow us to confine the fantastically hot gas the process creates, so I think the optimism of today is probably better founded. Secondly, until about ten to fifteen years ago, there just wasn’t the pressing need to invest the funding that fusion requires. Global warming has changed things, however, and the UK is now heavily involved in contributing our expertise to developing the next generation of experimental reactors.’

To this end, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently being built. This new facility will include a number of key technologies essential for a future power station. It also will be able to operate for very much longer periods than anything existing today. Most importantly, it will be the first fusion device designed to achieve sustained burn – the point at which the reactor becomes self-heating and productive. The hope is that it will demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power at last.

This is the background that explains the natural and economic opportunities for energy research that are found in the UK. However, there is also a political foreground and this has seen funding in this area increase. Partly driven by environmental concerns, as well as the need for energy security, the area of green research is currently experiencing a high level of funding.

John Loughhead, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, a body established in 2004 to be the UK’s pre-eminent centre of research on sustainable energy systems, says: ‘There is dramatically increasing interest in and funding of research and development activities related to future energy systems. Over the last three years, the budget of the various research councils in this area has almost doubled. At the same time, other bodies, such as the Energy Technology Institute and the Technology Strategy Board, have also increased their funding significantly.

‘The UK is looking for innovative solutions for sustainable energy that will work in the UK’s almost unique open-market environment, and this is why we conduct research across so many diverse areas. We don’t just do wind and fuel cells, for example. We are also active in advanced solar technologies, in wave and tidal energy, in bio-energy and the development of bio-fuels, in geothermal energy sources, in storage technologies for both carbon emissions and of energy itself, and in the re-engineering of power networks. However, we are just as committed to research that is considered to be cutting edge in conception, such as in the regulatory and social adjustments that are needed to help people consume less power.’


If you drill down through any of these areas, you will find many different teams working on different aspects of any particular alternative energy system. For example, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC) is currently funding research into developing bio-fuels like willow and elephant grass that could be used to produce ethanol (which, in turn, can be used as a fuel). Non-food crops have to be perennials to avoid the need for (and energy expenditure of) annual replanting, they would have to be able to grow on marginal arable land (so avoiding competing with food crops) and they would have to be strains that will be amenable to processing in a so-called bio-refinery.

This is where another research team comes in. A second BBSRC project is concerned with developing strains of bacteria that can easily break down the difficult-to-reach lignocellulose found in trees and grasses.

Dr David Leak, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Imperial College London and the leading researcher on this project, says: ‘I think most people now recognise that we need to use a non-food substrate to produce bioethanol. And while some trees and perennial grasses would be ideal because they can be grown on non-food-producing land and also contain lots of fermentable carbohydrate in the form of lignocellulose, the big difficulty is finding an efficient way to produce ethanol from them. Unlike sucrose in sugar beet, which can literally be squeezed out of the plant, or the nicely compact and accessible carbohydrates found in grain, the sugars in lignocellulose are difficult to access, and are more complex and trickier to ferment efficiently.

‘In response to this, some research teams are trying to develop new strains of yeast to degrade the different monomeric and polymeric forms of sugar found in lignocellulose and so convert them directly into ethanol. Essentially, what they are attempting to do is to engineer in new capabilities to the organism. The approach we are taking with our industrial partners is different, however. Instead of trying to add things to yeast, we are taking a talented variant of a common bacterium found in compost heaps and which already degrades many different compounds, and trying to change its fermentation pathways so that it makes more alcohol. Essentially, we are taking things away: removing and re-regulating some of its capabilities in order to get it to concentrate on producing ethanol.

‘One of the big advantages of our method is that our strains are thermophilic and so our fermentations can convert sugar to ethanol extremely quickly at temperatures in excess of 60°C – yeast typically ferment at 30°C. This also means that a commercial process based on our technology becomes wholly more energy efficient.

‘At present, we have managed to get a new ethanol fermentation pathway in this organism, which is giving us nearly 90% of theoretical yield, and my commercial collaborators are currently working on scaling this up to an industrial pilot process.’

Carbon sinks

Ethanol is a petrol substitute that does not create carbon emissions. Other research teams are, however, working with oil companies either to minimise the amount of carbon that is produced or, in the following case, to explore the possibility of storing carbon dioxide in depleted oil reservoirs underground.

Putting CO 2 down nearly empty oil wells is not a new idea. The oil industry has been using this technique for some time to displace some of the last remaining oil in a reservoir and so aid its discovery. However, the physics and chemistry of pumping CO 2 into the well in order to contain it there is entirely new.

Professor Nigel Brandon of the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College is working with Shell to look at how this CO 2 storage might be achieved. ‘The first stage is to take a very close look at the properties of CO 2 and how it behaves as a fluid underground,’ he says.

‘The oil industry has many years of experience and understanding of how fluids flow in these underground structures. However, this understanding has been developed for gas and oil extraction. There hasn’t been a lot of interest in how CO 2 behaves and a lot of its properties are ill understood. This means that additional data is needed for the computer simulations and tools that are currently used to assist in the design of these processes. We are therefore going back to some basic issues that were never addressed in the development of the oil industry. For example, we need to know how CO 2 could interact with some rocks in ways that would impair the integrity of the structure and we need to look at how you can monitor the situation over extended periods. It is a fundamental examination of CO 2 as a fluid under reservoir conditions.’

Solar power

The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is at the forefront of investigating ways of making the generation of solar power more efficient. Among a number of other teams working in this area, a consortium of chemists, physicists, materials scientists and electrical engineers in Manchester and London are investigating novel solar-cell designs that utilise intrinsically inexpensive materials and cheap fabrication methodologies. The consortium of researchers is led by Professor Paul O’Brien from the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry, and his team are aiming to build demonstration hybrid solar cells that have the long-term potential to be mass-produced and to achieve an energy-conversion efficiency approaching 10%.

Wind and wave energy

Similar step changes in efficiency and in commercial utilisation are being seen in the harvesting of wind and wave energy. The UK has a massive marine energy resource and wave systems have now reached a level of scale where they are demonstrating near-megawatt abilities. Similarly, offshore wind-turbine and tidal-stream machines are being demonstrated and commercially developed.

Networking the power

The simple ability to generate significant amounts of energy from natural resources is not the end of the story. That energy then needs to be sent to where it is needed, and a lot of work is being done in the field of advanced electrical network technologies – the so-called IT-enabled smart networks of the future. At the local level, the systems were originally designed and built to send energy in only one direction: from the National Grid (which connects the power stations together) to the consumer. However, renewable energy sources need to be connected anywhere on the system and the many small, decentralised energy generators that solar, wind and wave power presupposes require local networks that can send energy in many different directions at every level of the network. Re-engineering the network at this lower regional level requires research and development into a great variety of subjects, from IT and the solid-state switching of power controls to health and safety communications.

Hydrogen fuel cells

There is perhaps one final, circumstantial advantage the UK has in the development of green technology. It has a goal. In 2012, the Olympics are coming to London and with it comes an opportunity to demonstrate to the world the possibilities inherent in new forms of energy.

It is likely that the 2012 Olympics will see hydrogen fuel-cell technology being used in transport on an unprecedented scale. The UK Government is intending to support London in its aim to deploy fuel-cell-powered buses and other vehicles like police cars and ambulances during the Games. It will be the most ambitious demonstration ever of new energy technologies.

David Williams is a freelance journalist reporting on higher education and graduate careers. He is the co-author of How To Get The Best Graduate Job (Pearson, 2005).

Read other Engineering research papers, including a 2006 research paper about Self-healing Spacecraft and 2008 research about Groundbreaking Graphene.