Finding new ways to generate and store energy is the defining technological challenge of our age.
Energy use lies at the centre of the global climate change debate while fuel security plays a growing role in our politics and personal finances.
Access to clean, reliable energy “on demand” is likely to determine whether advanced economies can sustain significant economic growth in the 21st Century, and may underpin fundamental changes to how we organise our societies in the longer term.
Yorkshire is a key centre for innovation in renewable energy generation: facilities such as the Dogger Bank wind farm and Drax biomass fuelled power station lead technological change in their fields.
In March, Siemens also announced a £310 million deal to develop a wind turbine blade plant on the North bank of the Humber, one of the Government’s 16 centres for offshore renewable engineering. The development will create more than 1,000 local jobs.
But unless scientists can find a way of efficiently storing energy when it is generated in excess (i.e. on very windy or sunny days), we will never be free from fossil fuels. “Storing energy will become increasingly important in the move towards a low carbon economy,” said Greg Barker, Minister for Energy and Climate Change, as he announced over £8 million of funding in February this year for innovation in energy storage.
To help Britain prepare for the move, former Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts made energy storage a national priority. “UK researchers are leading the way in alternative energy storage technologies,” he explains in his ‘Great Eight Technologies’ report. “We are a well recognised global leader.”
Researchers in Yorkshire are vital to that leadership.
At the University of Leeds, the Energy Leeds hub makes energy research easily available to industry and Government. The research ranges from characterising the combustion of biofuels to economic analyses of how society may adopt new technologies. The work could be transformative.
Professor Dongsheng Wen advises two pioneering UK firms on cryogenic’ energy storage, which uses very cold fluids to store energy on the energy grid or in cars. Another group at Leeds, led by Professor Ian Ward, has developed a novel polymer gel that will make safer and cheaper lithium batteries—and may lead to exciting new products such as bendable mobile phones.
Meanwhile the University of Sheffield is looking at the other end of car battery life cycle. Researchers want to know if old batteries from electric cars have enough life left to power domestic appliances. Cheap batteries could effectively turn millions of appliances into a national, distributed energy store which can charge up during excess generation and run on battery power when demand peaks.
Some scientists are developing batteries on an even grander scale. Sheffield also leads a major project to connect a massive 2MW battery – the size of an articulated lorry – to the grid. It will be the first battery of its kind to be used in this way in the UK.
Alongside Yorkshire’s expertise in energy storage research, our universities are also working to make renewable generation more efficient – another way to ensure renewables deliver all the energy we need.
Scientists at York University, for example, are collaborating internationally to boost the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) panels. Dr Thomas Krauss has helped to enhance the thin films that make up PV panels by introducing a novel structure – called a quasi-random structure – to the film material. The panels can now capture more light and so generate more electricity. For Yorkshire and the rest of the north, this technology could finally make solar generation a viable option.
York University is trying to give biofuels a big boost too. Researchers in the Department of Chemistry have discovered a family of enzymes that degrade hard-to-digest biomass into sugars that can then be fermented to useful bioethanol. Professor Paul Walton says: , “Bioethanol producers now have a powerful tool to help them generate biofuel from sustainable sources, such as waste plant matter.”
Whether it is extracting energy from waste, balancing power supply and demand or weaning ourselves away from oil, there are clear economic and environmental drivers for this research. Minister Greg Parker says that storing energy, for example, “has the potential to save the energy system £4 billion by 2050,” not to mention the benefits of lower carbon emissions.
As a host to big players in renewables, it is good to see Yorkshire universities developing solutions which will sustain these businesses and drive UK leadership in this sector.