U.K.' s Energy-Research Renewal

(Image: NOAA)

(Image: NOAA)

With oil prices soaring and concerns about global warming and climate change growing, the pressure is on to find new ways of managing the current and future energy supply. This month saw the launch of two initiatives in the U.K. that are creating new training and research opportunities for aspiring scientists. The first initiative--a combined effort of several U.K. Research Councils called the Energy Programme--will engage universities and businesses that share an interest in energy and work with them to establish research-and-training priorities, and concurrently build on existing research funded by the councils in this sector. The second initiative is Imperial College London's Energy Futures Lab, a research programme that aims to bring together people from different disciplines to work on projects that will lead to sustainable energy technologies.

The world’s biggest industry

Although both initiatives are still in the development stage, they reflect a renewed political interest in U.K. energy research and herald future--and affirm current--career opportunities for early career researchers in areas ranging from nuclear to renewable energy. "Energy is quite simply the world’s biggest industry," said Sir David King, the U.K.'s chief scientific advisor, at last month's launch of the Energy Programme. "I believe that over the next 20 to 30 years we’re going to see the greatest transition this industry has seen.” To meet these challenges, King added, "We need to have strength and depth in our research and development."

Energy research engages researchers in physics, chemistry, mathematics, materials science, engineering and biology, in addition to disciplines outside the natural sciences. A large of proportion of energy research aims to establish and optimize renewable sources such as photovoltaics, hydrogen fuel cells, biomass, and wind power, but energy research can also be about improving old technologies. "The one technological challenge which completely towers above all the others is the challenge of burning coal cleanly," says Lord Oxburgh, former chairman of Shell and former chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, speaking at the launch of the Energy Futures lab at Imperial College London.

The energy programme is a collaborative effort of several research councils with the engineering and physical sciences councils in the lead. "Energy is one of the areas of technology research where the economic, social, and environmental aspects are absolutely fundamental," says Peter Hedges, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Power Sector manager.

Specific opportunities arising directly from this first Energy Summit are still "at an early stage," according to a spokesperson for the EPSRC, but researchers have a pretty good idea which research areas will be funded. Robin Grimes, Professor of Materials Physics at Imperial, says that the EPSRC wants a "balanced portfolio." Grimes thinks they are likely to fund nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, carbon sequestration, cleaner generating capacity, and renewables such as biomass. “They’re trying to hedge their bets,” says Grimes. Grimes thinks the Energy Programme may not fund technologies, like wind power, that already are well developed.

The EPSRC Energy Programme will build on the large amount of research already being conducted through a number of consortia and research programs at various institutions working in areas such as biomass and bioenergy, marine energy, and extending the lifetime of conventional power plants through the Supergen programme. Other EPSRC-funded programmes and consortia include the Fusion Programme, the "Keeping the Nuclear Option Open" programme (nuclear fission), the UK Energy Research Centre, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Carbon Vision Buildings Project, and Building Knowledge for a Changing Climate. If you are interested in working within any of these programmes, says an EPSRC spokesperson, you should contact the universities and researchers involved and inquire about available positions.

The same week the research councils launched the new energy programme, Imperial College London launched its Energy Futures Lab to bring together people from different disciplines who are in energy research. Imperial spends some £20 million per year on energy research, but "for a long while, we’d managed to develop all of these programmes largely in isolation of each other, not necessarily interacting a great deal," says David Fisk, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Imperial. The Energy Futures Lab will have a physical home, with a large open space largely devoted to computer-aided design, but its most important aim is to encourage faculty from different departments to work together to tackle energy problems in a sustainable way without contributing to climate change.

One Energy Future Lab project that has already been funded is Urban Energy Systems, a £4.5 million joint venture between Imperial and the oil company British Petroleum. According to project co-director Fisk, 80% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030, many in developing countries. Cities "operate with large service networks that are usually independently optimized, but it seems very likely that the engineering of these networks, not least energy supply, will need to be rethought," says Fisk.

The Urban Energy System programme will examine how energy is used in cities, with the aim of reducing costs and improving efficiency. Imperial is planning to recruit about ten faculty, six postdoctoral researchers, and seven Ph.D. students to work on the project, with skills in process engineering, civil engineering systems, electricity distribution modelling, and resource flow analysis.And it is likely that similar research may be funded. "One of the big reasons for the Energy Futures Lab was a feeling that the systems aspect of engineering was coming up on the radar," explains Fisk.

Largest grant for fission research

Another project that will involve Energy Futures Lab and other universities is the £6.1 million Keeping the Nuclear [Energy] Option Open Programme. According to Grimes, the project's principal investigator, it’s the largest grant for fission research that the research councils have made in 30 years. In partnership with the Universities of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Cardiff, and the Open University, the programme will examine issues such as the design of next-generation nuclear reactors, reactor performance, reactor monitoring, materials for nuclear reactors that can withstand high temperatures, and nuclear waste disposal.

To address the acute shortage of people with appropriate skills, Grimes says, they are planning to train 46 people, half in Ph.D. positions and half in postdocs. “The postdocs … are going to need specific skills for the specific projects, which will be advertised by the specific universities,” he says. “For Ph.D. students, [their background] can be very general: maths, physics, chemistry, materials, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering.”

In addition to funding energy research, the EPSRC is also starting an Engineering Doctorate Centre in Nuclear Engineering with £5 million in funding, with first intake of students planned for autumn 2006. The EPSRC's Engineering Doctorate (EngD) is a 4-year higher degree designed to train people seeking a managerial career in industry.

Whether you are training as traditional Ph.D. student, an EngD student, or a postdoc, a career in energy research requires a combination of advanced technical skills and creativity. "You have to be good not just at the science, but pretty creative in thinking your way around some of the problems," says Imperial's Fisk. "It’s really trying to understand the fundamentals, and at the same time occasionally looking for imaginative ways of doing things."

"The research opportunities in energy," adds Lord Oxburgh, "are some of the most challenging and exciting that exist in any discipline."

A. Agrawal is as freelance writer.

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