One hundred years after his death, Swan’s legacy burns brighter than ever. Professor Tony Roskilly, Director of Newcastle University’s Sir Joseph Swan Centre, explains why the North East is still leading the way in energy research.
"Like Swan, our focus here at Newcastle University is on finding solutions, not just understanding the problems," explains Professor Tony Roskilly, the new Director of Newcastle University’s Sir Joseph Swan Centre for Energy Research
"Balancing future energy supply and demands against economic and environmental cost is one of the biggest challenges facing today’s society and here at Newcastle we have some of the UK’s leading experts in physical and social sciences and engineering tackling this issue.
"Sir Joseph Swan’s electric light bulb was one of history’s great inventions that changed society forever. Over a century later, the energy research and development still taking place here in the North East has the potential to be just as important."
With around 120 researchers and more than £40 million in research funding over the last three years, Newcastle University is one of the UK’s leading centres for energy research. Focussing on future energy supply and demand, the team are working across traditional academic boundaries and collaborating with business, industry and other organisations to find sustainable solutions to this growing global problem.
For example, research is focussing on the development of novel battery technology for use in electric vehicles, new energy management systems to support the use of renewable fuels in shipping and the development of innovative technologies to capture carbon dioxide and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"One of the biggest challenges we face is reducing the amount of energy we waste. The EU alone has over 230 million cars on the road consuming 159 billion litres of fuel per year and more than 60% of that fuel energy is wasted as heat from the exhaust. A phenomenal amount of energy is wasted right across the board, from the largest processing industries right down to you and me driving our cars. The recovery and use of this energy is crucial if we are to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions."
Several projects are underway at Newcastle University to tackle this major energy problem, including work to improve the energy efficiency of rail transport, the development of low-power electronics and the design of ‘smart’, energy-efficient buildings.
Accessing new and renewable energy supplies is another key strand of research for the team in the Sir Joseph Swan Centre and current projects include work to investigate the potential of rice straw as a fuel.
"This is about finding local solutions which together help to solve a global problem," explains Professor Roskilly.
"Rice is the world’s main food staple and when the grain is harvested the straw is mostly burnt in the fields, resulting in severe air pollution – a danger to the environment and human health. For every four tonnes of rice grain, six tonnes of straw is produced."
Working with colleagues in the Bioenergy Supergen Hub at Newcastle University and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the team are looking at ways to usefully use the rice straw for energy and to produce electricity.
It’s a similar story with postharvest losses, where over 30% of the world’s food production is wasted. "Up to 50% of fresh fruit and vegetables are lost in some developing countries," explains Professor Roskilly.
"Swan is working with partners in sub-Saharan Africa to provide solutions using renewable energy to optimise food processing which will minimise loss and waste."
New technology to recover, store and use waste heat for cooling, heating and electrical power is also being developed by the team.
In the North East, Newcastle University is leading the Neptune National Centre for Subsea and Offshore Engineering. Announced by Business Secretary Vince Cable as a key part of the Government's Oil and Gas Strategy, the plans were signed off for this development by Newcastle City Council earlier this month.
On land, researchers are building a £2million grid–scale energy storage test bed that will pave the way for the future of Smart Grids and energy storage across the UK. Playing a key role in the energy strategy for Science Central, the project will enable the development of new technologies for maximising efficiency, availability and sustainability of energy across the power grid in a real-world setting.
Professor Roskilly adds: "Providing clean energy conversion and power generation, reducing energy demand and supporting sustainable growth is a global challenge and Newcastle University has a central role to play in meeting the diverse pressures on energy needs of communities around the world whilst protecting the environment for future generations."
published on: 26 March 2014