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Electric cars better for climate in 95% of the world

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Mar 23, 2020.

Reports have questioned whether electric cars really are ‘greener’ once emissions from production and generating their electricity are taken into account.

But a new study by the universities of Exeter, Nijmegen and Cambridge has concluded that electric cars lead to lower carbon emissions overall, even if electricity generation still relies on fossil fuels. The results are reported in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Under current conditions, driving an electric car is better for the climate than conventional petrol cars in 95% of the world, the study finds.

The only exceptions are places like Poland, where electricity generation is still mostly based on coal.

Average lifetime emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than petrol cars in countries like Sweden and France (which get most of their electricity from renewables and nuclear), and around 30% lower in the UK.

In a few years, even inefficient electric cars will be less emission-intensive than most new petrol cars in most countries, as electricity generation is expected to be less carbon-intensive than today.

The study projects that by 2050, every other car on the streets could be electric. This would reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 1.5 gigatons per year, which is equivalent to the total current CO2 emissions of Russia.

The study also looked at electric household heat pumps, and found they too produce lower emissions than fossil-fuel alternatives in 95% of the world.

Heat pumps could reduce global CO2 emissions in 2050 by up to 0.8 gigatons per year – roughly equal to Germany’s current annual emissions.

"We started this work a few years ago, and policy-makers in the UK and abroad have shown a lot of interest in the results," said senior author Dr Jean-Francois Mercure from the University of Exeter. "The answer is clear: to reduce carbon emissions, we should choose electric cars and household heat pumps over fossil fuel alternatives."

"The idea that electric vehicles or electric heat pumps could increase emissions is essentially a myth," said lead author Dr Florian Knobloch, from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. "We've seen a lot of discussion about this recently, with lots of disinformation going around. Here is a definitive study that can dispel those myths. We have run the numbers for all around the world, looking at a whole range of cars and heating systems.

"Even in our worst-case scenario, there would be a reduction in emissions in almost all cases. This insight should be very useful for policy-makers."

The study examined the current and future emissions of different types of vehicles and home heating options worldwide.

It divided the world into 59 regions to account for differences in power generation and technology.

In 53 of these regions – including the US, China and most of Europe – the findings show electric cars and heat pumps are already less emission-intensive than fossil fuel alternatives.

These 53 regions represent 95% of global transport and heating demand and, with energy production decarbonising worldwide, Mercure said the "last few debatable cases will soon disappear."

"Understanding the effect of low-carbon innovations on relevant sectors of the economy, such as heating and transport, is crucial for the development of effective policy," said co-author Dr Pablo Salas, from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. "We hope our work can inform the policy process here in the UK and abroad, particularly around discussions of the new carbon targets under the Paris Agreement framework."

The researchers carried out a life-cycle assessment in which they not only calculated greenhouse gas emissions generated when using cars and heating systems, but also in the production chain and waste processing.

"Taking into account emissions from manufacturing and ongoing energy use, it’s clear that we should encourage the switch to electric cars and household heat pumps without any regrets," Knobloch said.

Reference:
Florian Knobloch et al. ‘
Net emission reductions from electric cars and heat pumps in 59 world regions over time.’ Nature Sustainability (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41893-020-0488-7

Adapted from a University of Exeter press release.

Fears that electric cars could actually increase carbon emissions are unfounded in almost all parts of the world, new research shows.

Understanding the effect of low-carbon innovations on relevant sectors of the economy, such as heating and transport, is crucial for the development of effective policy
Pablo Salas
Electric car charging in Birmingham City Centre

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Yes

New tools show a way forward for large-scale storage of renewable energy

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Mar 02, 2020.

The new tools, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, will help scientists design more efficient and safer battery systems for grid-scale energy storage. In addition, the technique may be applied to other types of batteries and electrochemical cells to untangle the complex reaction mechanisms that occur in these systems, and to detect and diagnose faults.

The researchers tested their techniques on organic redox flow batteries, promising candidates to store enough renewable energy to power towns and cities, but which degrade too quickly for commercial applications. The researchers found that by charging the batteries at a lower voltage, they were able to significantly slow the rate of degradation, extending the batteries’ lifespan. The results are reported in the journal Nature.

Batteries are a vital piece of the transition away from fossil fuel-based sources of energy. Without batteries capable of grid-scale storage, it will be impossible to power the economy using solely renewable energy. And lithium-ion batteries, while suitable for consumer electronics, don’t easily scale up to a sufficient size to store enough energy to power an entire city, for instance. Flammable materials in lithium-ion batteries also pose potential safety hazards. The bigger the battery, the more potential damage it could cause if it catches fire. 

Redox flow batteries are one possible solution to this technological puzzle. They consist of two tanks of electrolyte liquid, one positive and one negative, and can be scaled up just by increasing the size of the tanks, making them highly suitable for renewable energy storage. These room-sized, or even building-sized, non-flammable batteries may play a key role in future green energy grids.

Several companies are currently developing redox flow batteries for commercial applications, most of which use vanadium as the electrolyte. However, vanadium is expensive and toxic, so battery researchers are working to develop a redox flow battery based on organic materials which are cheaper and more sustainable. However, these molecules tend to degrade quickly.

“Since the organic molecules tend to break down quickly, it means that most batteries using them as electrolytes won’t last very long, making them unsuitable for commercial applications,” said Dr Evan Wenbo Zhao from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, and the paper’s first author. “While we’ve known this for a while, what we haven’t always understood is why this is happening.”

Now, Zhao and his colleagues in Professor Clare Grey’s research group in Cambridge, along with collaborators from the UK, Sweden and Spain, have developed two new techniques to peer inside organic redox flow batteries in order to understand why the electrolyte breaks down and improve their performance.

Using ‘real time’ nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) studies, a sort of functional ‘MRI for batteries’, and methods developed by Professor Grey’s group, the researchers were able to read resonance signals from the organic molecules, both in their original states and as they degraded into other molecules. These ‘operando’ NMR studies of the degradation and self-discharge in redox flow batteries provide insights into the internal underlying mechanisms of the reactions, such as radical formation and electron transfers between the different redox-active species in the solutions.

“There are few in situ mechanistic studies of organic redox flow batteries, systems that are currently limited by degradation issues,” said Grey. “We need to understand both how these systems function and also how they fail if we are going to make progress in this field.”

The researchers found that under certain conditions, the organic molecules tended to degrade more quickly. “If we change the charge conditions by charging at a lower voltage, the electrolyte lasts longer,” said Zhao. “We can also change the structure of the organic molecules so that they degrade more slowly. We now understand better why the charge conditions and molecular structures matter.”

The researchers now want to apply their NMR setup on other types of organic redox flow batteries, as well as on other types of next-generation batteries, such as lithium-air batteries.

“We are excited by the wide range of potential applications of this method to monitor a variety of electrochemical systems while they are being operated,” said Grey.

For example, the NMR technique will be used to develop a portable battery ‘health check’ device to diagnose its condition.

“Using such a device, it could be possible to check the condition of the electrolyte in a functioning organic redox flow battery and replace it if necessary,” said Zhao. “Since the electrolyte for these batteries is inexpensive and non-toxic, this would be a relatively straightforward process, prolonging the life of these batteries.”

The research was funded in part by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Shell.

Reference:
Evan Wenbo Zhao et al. ‘In situ NMR metrology reveals reaction mechanisms in redox flow batteries.’ Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2081-7

A technique based on the principles of MRI and NMR has allowed researchers to observe not only how next-generation batteries for large-scale energy storage work, but also how they fail, which will assist in the development of strategies to extend battery lifetimes in support of the transition to a zero-carbon future.

We need to understand both how these systems function and also how they fail if we are going to make progress in this field
Clare Grey
Wind farm

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Yes

The climate crisis: towards zero carbon

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Feb 26, 2020.

If we are to avoid climate disaster we must sharply reduce our carbon dioxide emissions starting today – but how?

In a new film, Cambridge researchers describe their work on generating and storing renewable energy, reducing energy consumption, understanding the impact of climate policies, and probing how we can each reduce our environmental impact. Alumni Sir David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall DBE speak about the climate crisis and reasons for hope.

We hear about the ambitious new programme Cambridge Zero bringing together ideas and innovations to tackle the global challenge of climate catastrophe – and inspiring a generation of future leaders – and how the University is looking at its own operations to develop a zero carbon pathway for the future.

 

Explore more:

Visit our spotlight on Sustainable Earth

Read our Horizons magazine: download a pdf; view on Issuu

Sir David Attenborough, Dr Jane Goodall DBE and leading Cambridge University researchers talk about the urgency of climate crisis – and some of the solutions that will take us towards zero carbon.

There are huge opportunities to getting things right – the only way to operate is to believe we can do something about it – and I truly think we can.
Sir David Attenborough

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Yes

Prince of Wales launches new UK centre for low-carbon aviation

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Jan 28, 2020.

The Centre, which is due to open in 2022, will bring together researchers from across UK Universities with industry partners such as Rolls Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens and Dyson to accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies for the propulsion and power sectors.

Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratory, said: “Our enemy is time. To achieve net-zero by 2050 we have focused on accelerating the technology development process itself. The results have been astonishing, with development times being reduced by a factor of 10 to 100.”

The Prince, who is patron of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), hosted a roundtable meeting of aviation and power generation business leaders, senior Government officials and researchers about how the UK can accelerate the development of decarbonisation technologies.

“We are at a pivotal moment, in terms of both Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power, and humanity’s need to decarbonise these sectors,” said Miller. “Fifty years ago, the Whittle Laboratory and its industrial partners faced the challenge of making air travel efficient and reliable. Now the new Whittle Laboratory and the National Centre will enable us to lead the way in making it green.”

Simon Weeks, Chief Technology Officer of the Aerospace Technology Institute said: “We are pleased to support the National Centre for Propulsion and Power with funding through the ATI Programme. The centre will play a critical role in developing sustainable propulsion technologies – a key part of the UK’s air transport technology strategy. It builds on the world-leading reputation of the Whittle Laboratory to create a globally unique capability.”

Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “The new National Centre for Propulsion and Power will support the UK’s thriving aerospace sector and help it develop cutting-edge technology at an even faster pace. By fuelling innovation we will ensure the UK remains firmly established as a world leader in low carbon technologies - as we make strides towards our goal of net zero emissions by 2050.”

The National Centre, supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute with funding from the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, aims to scale agile technology development to around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic needs. The process is described as ‘tightening the circle’ between design, manufacture and testing.

Design time has been reduced used AI and augmented design systems running on graphics processors, originally designed for computer gaming. Manufacturing times have been reduced by directly linking the design systems to rows of in-house 3D printing and rapid machining tools, rather than relying on external suppliers. Testing times have been reduced by developing rapidly assembly and disassembly experimental test facilities, which can be operated by Formula One-style pit teams.

“There’s a natural human timescale of about a week, in which if you can go from idea to result then you have a virtuous circle between understanding and inspiration,” said Miller. “We’ve found that when the technology development timescale approaches the human timescale – as it does in our leaner process – then innovation explodes.”

The aviation roundtable was convened by the Whittle Laboratory and CISL, which share a common objective of developing new ways in which policy leadership, industry and academia can collaborate to accelerate innovation and achieve net-zero by 2050.

The University launched Cambridge Zero in 2019 to bring together its research, policy and private sector engagement activities on climate change. The Whittle Laboratory and CISL are key partners in that initiative, and both demonstrate the importance of academia working with government and the private sector on the critical issue of our time.

The Prince of Wales today launched the National Centre for Propulsion and Power during a visit to the University of Cambridge. Based at the world famous Whittle Laboratory, the Centre aims to accelerate the development of decarbonisation technologies.

We are at a pivotal moment, in terms of both Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power, and humanity’s need to decarbonise these sectors
Rob Miller

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Yes

The "stop doing stupid stuff" approach to sustainable manufacturing

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Jan 22, 2020.

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The "stop doing stupid stuff" approach to sustainable manufacturing
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These are the tops of socks.





Billions of these fabric edges are discarded every year.

Words and photography: Louise Walsh

Words and photography: Louise Walsh

Professor Steve Evans keeps a pile of sock tops in his office.

They remind him to keep asking industry the questions they never thought to ask.

"By the end of this talk, I want you to feel really angry."

Not your conventional opening line to a talk but then it's not every day a speaker brings along a bag of sock tops to pass around.

By the time Professor Steve Evans gathers them up again, some have been twisted and knotted into intricate shapes. Members of the audience have started to make things.

And that's the point. It's not hard to imagine these colourful, stretchy scraps turned into anything from blankets to bags to belts. And yet, every year, says Evans, 11 billion of these slim fabric edges are cut off and discarded after the end of the sock is sewn.

"Sock tops are a great example of the 'invisibility' of some forms of waste to those who see it every day. Manufacturers don't always notice the little bits cut off. They notice the pile of socks – a pile of money – being made. It's easier to follow the money than to notice the waste."

"I study the shadow," he adds. "I look not at what's manufactured but what has been lost or not used during the process. Around 90% of the resources we process to create goods are not reaching the person for whom they are made, 50% of edible food is not eaten, and only about 50% full loading is achieved in freight trucks in the UK.

"These are examples of what makes me angry."

"If manufacturers moved just half way from their current resource usage towards the usage of the most efficient companies in their own industry, our research indicates that the impact in manufacturing would be 12% increased profit, 15% more jobs and 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions."
Steve Evans

Professor Steve Evans is Director of Research at the Centre for Industrial Sustainability, part of Cambridge University's Institute for Manufacturing. Over the past 20 years, he and his team of action researchers have been chasing down the 'shadows' of wasteful inefficiencies cast by the manufacturers of anything from cement to cars to clothing.

"There are examples of inefficiency and waste all around us. But it's either 'part of the furniture' of operations or you can't see it – it's the water used or the energy consumed," he says.

"Factories are responsible for about 36% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and often the carbon footprint of manufacturing operations is closely related to how efficiently they operate. It's crucial for profit margins that resource efficiency is the best it can be and it's crucial for the planet that industries reduce their carbon footprint."

Evans points to Toyota as being a leading light in industrial sustainability. "The factory in Burnaston, near Derby, has been reducing the energy it uses to manufacture a car by at least 8% every year for 14 years, resulting in over 70% reduction over the period. They can now make four cars for the energy it used to take to manufacture one car 14 years ago.

"Then they started a programme called 'no production equals no energy'. That means when the factory is shut down in the middle of the night, they shouldn't be using energy. Crucially, they've managed to do all of these improvements by identifying efficiencies in energy usage, not by depending on a major new technology to revolutionise the business."

His team has now had what amounts to thousands of interactions with industries – including Toyota, Airbus UK, Jaguar/Land Rover and Dyson – either directly or indirectly through use of their open source tools. As a result, Evans and colleagues can spot patterns in the inefficiencies that hold industries back from performing better.

"None of us wants to solve one problem at a time, so we're always looking for patterns across multiple industries, pinpointing places where resources are wasted and where opportunities are missed for creating value.

"Quite often, we don't need to collect much more data or even any at all, but we do help them to present the data they've already collected in their own factory in different ways.

"And all of a sudden, it goes from being just numbers in the spreadsheet to them saying 'I can now see the waste!' All we're doing is asking the right questions and presenting the results in a way that makes the invisible visible."

“Sometimes it's as simple as asking what happens on your best day and what happens on your worst day, and then asking why."
Steve Evans

Take for instance... 'what's the best day to make cement?'

"The cement industry is the second most intense industrial producer of CO2, responsible for around 5% of global emissions. If it were a country it would rank as the third highest producer of emissions after China and USA," says Evans.

It's also an industry of low margins and high capital, with many plants now decades old and inefficient. Although there has been a trend towards increasing use of alternative fuels, moving towards improved sustainability might seem too daunting a task for some businesses to take on.

Evans agrees that the perception of sustainability as being a complex add-on can be a deterrent: "Often it's easier to reach into your wallet than to reach into your brain," says Evans. "But what if you had a clear business case to show that improved sustainability would also help your bottom line? And that it could be achieved with today’s existing technologies, rather than waiting for new technology to be invented?"

In particular, given the diversity of materials being used as alternative fuels by the cement industry, the exact relationship between fuel mix, costs and CO2 emissions has not always been clear.

Dr Daniel Summerbell from the Centre for Industrial Sustainability looked at day-to-day variations in the performance of three UK cement plants to see whether existing industries could improve their efficiency through changes that don't rely on capital investment. He looked at the best day and the worst day for greenhouse gas emissions. The gap was huge.

"Most industries look at the overall performance of whatever aspect they are concerned with," explains Evans. "By asking which day was the best, we helped them see that a different metric could be used to understand how to perform better."

Improving the fuel mix reduced fuel consumption by about 6% and fuel-derived CO2 emissions by as much as 16%.

"Although such improvement is subject to availability of appropriate fuel and operating conditions, the low capital requirement makes it very attractive to industry," adds Evans.

"I like to describe the solutions we come up with as 'stop doing stupid stuff'."
Steve Evans

When it comes to sustainability and the environment, 2019 has been a significant year, says Evans.

"Things changed in 2019. Public perception of climate change has increased. Young people are asking questions of the older generations. The other day I was contacted by a CEO to talk about sustainable industry after his teenage daughter asked him 'Dad what are you doing about climate change?'. "

Where five years ago Evans and his team were mainly working with pioneering companies who saw the need for sustainable manufacturing, increasingly they are working with those who've never had sustainability on the agenda. Meanwhile they're seeing the early adopters looking to speed up their efforts.

But, for industrial sustainability to be more widely achieved, he believes it's essential that companies don’t exist in silos, where one company works out a clever trick and then says ‘job done’.

"We need to understand how to scale these solutions if we are to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as the world needs and as the UK government has legislated," he says. "To make efficiency improvements more achievable for manufacturers, scalable, practical and easy-to-use tools are required."

Evans and colleagues have developed the open-source Cambridge Value Mapping Tool to help companies recognise where value is being captured, and where it is not, using a structured visual approach. And they've been collaborating with Manufacture 2030, which provides a cloud-based platform to help manufacturers use less energy, water and materials, and thereby cut operational costs and environmental impact.

"What we don't do is tell people what to do in their factories – ever. Instead we think the key ingredients to solving these sustainability challenges are management support, freedom to think and education to stop doing stupid stuff. After that it's common sense."

In fact, when Evans became a Professor, he was asked what title he would like. Professor of Common Sense, he said. The appointing committee laughed. It raises a point however about how Evans sees the world of industrial sustainability.

"Nothing surprises me. In fact when I see examples of stupid stuff, I no longer have jaw-dropping moments. I just go 'Oh, there's another one'. But I'm really interested in why what we think of as normal common sense is so rare. That's why I use examples like the tops of socks. People get it straight away."

Summary: 

Around 90% of the resources we process to create goods are not reaching the person for whom they are made. How can we make manufacturing more sustainable?

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Women in STEM: Angela Harper

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Jan 02, 2020.

I would like to see the future renewable energy frontiers led by women. I hope I will be one of these women, along with the many other female scientists who are paving the way towards a greener future. It is hard to ignore the global need for better renewable energy sources and storage as soon as possible, and I hope my research will lead to better energy storage alternatives sooner rather than later.

Determination will take you far in life. Any time someone tells you that you aren't good enough to pursue a career in science, or perhaps you should "do something more suited for your skills" take that as a challenge to prove that person wrong. My advice to other women is to be confident that you ARE smart enough, you ARE brilliant, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

It never seemed odd to me that a woman would want to pursue physics. I grew up in Clifton Park, New York, and went to a large public high school with almost 1000 students per year. I was fortunate enough to have female science teachers throughout high school, and it was partly their influence that led me to major in physics at university.

At university, I helped to set up a Women in STEM programme. I attended Wake Forest University, a liberal arts college in North Carolina. With this programme, we created an after-school project with a local middle school called ‘Girls in STEM’ which helped girls age 12-15 start thinking about STEM careers. 

Choosing my Master's project was one of the hardest moments of my research career. I finally had the chance to create my own project, and I found this incredibly challenging but also so rewarding to know that all the work I do on this project is wholly my own. My research sets out to address our global need for storing renewable energy. I currently design lithium-ion battery materials using computational techniques, with the aim of developing a battery with long life and high capacity. This would mean that we are able to use solar, wind, and renewable energy, and store this energy effectively in Li-ion batteries.

I am a theoretical physicist, so each day I come in and work on the computer. My work involves creating models of new materials, calculating energies of different battery material structures, and developing code to better understand these materials. I work in the Theory of Condensed Matter group, located in West Cambridge at the Cavendish site. In chemistry, we learn about different orbitals, energy states, and phases of materials. But actually visualising and creating a material with these chemical properties was something new for me. The first day I was able to actually visualise, on my computer screen, the orbitals in a material I had computationally identified was a fantastic moment. 

In Cambridge, every academic I talk to at all levels is concerned about improving renewable energy sources. For this reason, I have found Cambridge an incredible place to conduct research on energy materials. Furthermore, the international nature of Cambridge has helped me build collaborations in countries I would not have had access to from the United States.  

It is impossible to walk into a pub, coffee shop, or grocery store without hearing incredibly academic conversations, and I have found that academically driven environment to be extremely rewarding.

 

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

 

Angela Harper is a PhD candidate at the Cavendish Laboratory, a member of Churchill College, and a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Here, she tells us about her work in renewable energy, setting up a Girls in STEM programme while she was an undergraduate in North Carolina, and the importance of role models when pursuing a career in STEM. 

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Yes

Strategic partner: Rolls-Royce

By skbf2 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Dec 16, 2019.

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Strategic partner: Rolls-Royce
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Strategic partner: Rolls-Royce

Reaching for the skies

Professor Cathie Rae, Professor of Superalloys, University of Cambridge

Professor Cathie Rae, Professor of Superalloys, University of Cambridge

Getting planes in the air – and keeping them there – is a complex and expensive business. It is also responsible for more than two per cent of the world’s fossil fuel-based CO2 emissions. For world-leading aeroengine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, reducing those emissions by making its planes more efficient is, therefore, a critical task.

Much has already been accomplished but there is more to be done. Year on year, Rolls-Royce continues to push the design of its engines and the materials they are made from to the limits of possibility.

Cambridge has been playing an important part in this process for more than 40 years. From the moment the Whittle Laboratory first opened its doors – and its testing rigs – in 1973, it became an invaluable research partner for Rolls-Royce, embarking on a shared quest to improve the efficiency of turbomachinery.

Rolls-Royce was quick to see the advantages of this way of working, and the relationship between it and the Whittle team helped to define a model for the University Technology Centre (UTC) network that Rolls-Royce went on to establish in the 1990s.

This network now consists of approximately 30 UTCs based at some of the world’s leading universities, giving Rolls-Royce access to new thinking, state-of-the-art laboratory equipment and, critically, to a steady supply of young engineering talent.

CAMBRIDGE AND ROLLS-ROYCE

Working together for more than 40 years

2 University Technology Centres

Partners in the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Future Propulsion and Power

Supporting 50+ Cambridge PhD students

Today, Cambridge is one of only a handful of Rolls-Royce’s partner universities to have two UTCs: the University Gas Turbine Partnership based at the Whittle and Hopkinson Laboratories and the Materials UTC based at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. In 2009 the relationship with the Materials Department was further cemented when it became the lead partner in the Rolls-Royce University Technology Partnership (UTP) in materials research, combining its expertise with that of the Universities of Swansea and Birmingham.

In addition to the academics and researchers, Rolls-Royce provides varying degrees of support for more than 50 Cambridge PhD students at any one time.

The UTC model, in essence, means that we can create a core of activity around a particular specialism and by sharing knowledge and expertise with a trusted partner, together we are able to achieve considerably more than the sum of our parts.”
Mark Jefferies, Chief of University Research Liaison at Rolls-Royce

The Whittle Laboratory: efficiency by design

Over the years, the Whittle Lab has contributed to many breakthroughs in Rolls-Royce engines, such as switching from a 'two-dimensional' (2D) to a 3D compressor blade. Now the industry standard, the design reduces fuel consumption by nearly 1%. Although this may sound like a small gain in efficiency, it is anything but.

For each aircraft, that could equate to a reduction in CO2 emissions of up to 765 tonnes per aircraft per year and a saving of up to $240,000 a year in fuel costs. Director of the Whittle, Professor Rob Miller together with Dr James Taylor, Rolls-Royce Fellow in Compressor Aerodynamics, is currently taking this work forward to develop the next generation of 3D blade designs.

Solving an engineering problem with AI

Dr Bryce Conduit, Rolls-Royce (left) and Dr James Taylor, University of Cambridge. Conduit was supported by an EPSRC IAA Knowledge Transfer Fellowship to work on secondment at the Whittle.

Dr Bryce Conduit, Rolls-Royce (left) and Dr James Taylor, University of Cambridge. Conduit was supported by an EPSRC IAA Knowledge Transfer Fellowship to work on secondment at the Whittle.

If a bird or other object strays into an aeroengine, it’s definitely bad news for the bird and potentially bad news for the engine’s compressor blades.

Engineers must decide if the damage is serious enough to warrant taking the engine off the wing to repair it. If it is, it will cost Rolls-Royce a huge amount of money and is therefore not a decision to be taken lightly.

The preferred option is to use a grinding tool on the blades in situ to remove any small cracks and prevent them from spreading. But any changes, however small, to the shape of the blades will affect the performance of the engine.

This poses a tricky question for the Rolls-Royce engineers: how much damage to how many blades and in what pattern can be sustained before performance is compromised? Enter Taylor and Bryce Conduit, AI/Horizon Scanning Lead in Rolls-Royce’s Central Technologies Group (with a PhD from Cambridge in Materials Science) who worked together on a novel approach to understanding this problem using machine learning, something the team thinks has not been done before.

Under normal circumstances, machine learning needs thousands of bits of data on which to train. However, a single compressor test normally takes around six months to complete. At that rate of progress, it would simply not be possible to generate the quantity of data needed.

The Whittle solved this conundrum by developing a rapid test capability in which a compressor rig can be stripped, rebuilt and tested in just 15 minutes – a staggering 1,000 times quicker than was previously possible. Using this high-speed capability, Taylor and Conduit were able to test 125 different compressors.

Although this represented a huge step forward, it was still not giving them the quantity of data they needed for the machine learning system they had in mind. Their response was to combine the test results with ‘expert elicitation’. In other words, they interviewed compressor specialists at Rolls-Royce and the Whittle Lab and fed their human wisdom into the model. The combination of rapid testing and expert knowledge resulted in a machine learning model which can predict how damage will affect the operation of a compressor to an accuracy of 98%.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this piece of work. With AI and rapid prototyping, Rolls-Royce and the Whittle are poised to embark on a new journey to transform the performance of turbomachinery. This is not a small step forward. It frees the engineers to take really radical steps to optimise engine design and maintenance.
Philip Guilford, Director of Research at the University of Cambridge's Department of Engineering

Why the model works

From left: Dr Bryce Conduit and Malcolm Hillel, both Rolls-Royce, Dr James Taylor, Dr Tony Dickens and Professor Rob Miller, University of Cambridge.

From left: Dr Bryce Conduit and Malcolm Hillel, both Rolls-Royce, Dr James Taylor, Dr Tony Dickens and Professor Rob Miller, University of Cambridge.

What is it about the UTC model that makes these kinds of game-changing advances possible? For Rolls-Royce's Malcolm Hillel it's the ability to look beyond the immediate pressures faced by all organisations and come up with completely new ways of doing things.

“When you are worrying about the problems you are facing day to day as a business, researching the next generation of technology is not always a priority. Working with Cambridge helps us to think about how we can do things differently in the future. It works brilliantly.”
Malcolm Hillel, Chief Technologist in Rolls-Royce’s Central Technologies Group

For Miller, the longevity of the relationship and having a framework in place for sharing IP are also critical factors in its success. “We’ve been working with Rolls-Royce for more than 50 years and that gives both parties a whole host of benefits. It means Rolls-Royce can be completely open with us about its strategy which, in turn, means that we are always ahead of the curve in researching the areas industry is most interested in. And that openness means technology transfer is just so much easier.”

Using the right materials

Dr Howard Stone, Reader in Metallurgy, University of Cambridge and Deputy Director of Rolls-Royce UTC in Materials.

Dr Howard Stone, Reader in Metallurgy, University of Cambridge and Deputy Director of Rolls-Royce UTC in Materials.

While the Whittle uses its expertise in aerodynamics to make aeroengines and gas turbines more efficient, the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy considers the other side of the same problem: what these machines are made of.

Justin Burrows, Project Manager for University Research at Rolls-Royce and currently a Royal Society Industrial Fellow based at the University says: “Aeroengines give us an almost limitless challenge. You are spinning a turbine blade around at 13,000 rpm, it’s in a gas stream 200 degrees above the alloy's melting point and you are hanging a double-decker bus off the end of it.” 

Developing a nickel-based superalloy for engine disks that are operating at these immense speeds, under vast amounts of stress at high temperatures has been the principal focus of the Materials UTC since its inception. Work to further extend the properties of the material continues today, with a patent in the works for a new alloy likely to be introduced into Rolls-Royce engines in about five years’ time.  

At the same time, engine designs are changing, with fans getting bigger and the engine getting smaller. Ultimately, to maximise efficiencies, a gearbox will be needed which can withstand what Professor Cathie Rae, Professor of Superalloys at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy describes as “unprecedented pounding” so that the fan and the turbine can run at slightly different speeds. The Cambridge team is researching the materials and the resistance to wear needed to operate in those extreme conditions.

Rae, like Miller, thinks the benefits of the relationship are multifaceted: “Working with universities like Cambridge gives Rolls-Royce access to our academic staff, exposure to new ideas and access to more and better equipment and techniques than any in-house research centre can reasonably fund.”

But the relationship is very much a two-way street, giving Cambridge researchers extraordinary opportunities to address some of the world’s most complex technological challenges.

Atomic-level engineering is at the forefront of modern, greener jet engine design. Video (2015).

Working together

Dr James Taylor and Dr Tony Dickens at the Whittle Laboratory

Dr James Taylor and Dr Tony Dickens at the Whittle Laboratory

In the end, a successful partnership is all about the people. The UTC structure creates the conditions in which long-term, open working relationships between Cambridge researchers and Rolls-Royce engineers can flourish to achieve real technological breakthrough.

Miller points to the recruitment of both graduates and postgraduates as a critical factor in sustaining those relationships: “From Rolls-Royce’s perspective being able to recruit some of our most talented engineers is clearly an advantage. But it’s also an advantage for us to have generations of Cambridge-trained engineers at Rolls-Royce. It means we understand each other really well.”


Further reading: You might also be interested in Professor Rob Miller's recent article in Horizons magazine on 'Green-sky thinking for propulsion and power'.


To find out more about how the University of Cambridge can work with your organisation, visit: www.cam.ac.uk/for-businesses

Or contact us at: business@admin.cam.ac.uk

Images

Damaged compressor blades in the rapid test rig. Credit: James Taylor
Installing a pressure transducer in the rig
Machining prototype compressor blades from aluminium alloy on the 5-axis mill
Damaged blades lined up and ready to test

Inside an arc melter where prototype alloys are first produced.
Weighing elemental metals to prepare the right mix for a new alloy.
All other credits: StillVision Photography

Summary: 

Researchers at Cambridge are working with Rolls-Royce to make aeroengines greener. 

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Women in STEM: Dr Jenny Zhang

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Dec 05, 2019.

It was my mother who first got me interested in science. When I was very young, back when I was growing up China, she used to tell me bedtime stories about the origins of thunder and lightning, how radios work, or how eggs became chickens. This apparently had a profound effect on me. Eggs would regularly go missing from the kitchen and turn up buried snugly under some blankets in bed. Or the new radio would be found dismantled, presumably taken apart by someone who wanted a better look inside...

My PhD research was in medicinal chemistry. My aim was to design anti-cancer drugs that could penetrate deep into solid tumours. To achieve this, I synthesised a library of novel DNA intercalators and anti-cancer platinum complexes and studied their bio-distribution and metabolism within 3D-tumour models using a variety of chemical imaging techniques. My research was very much directed by the problem, which gave me opportunities to travel around the world to work in different labs and disciplines. I was able to arrive at new drug design strategies using this approach.

Environmental sustainability is important to me, so that’s why I moved into artificial photosynthesis. My PhD research was highly interdisciplinary and I developed a deep appreciation of how different approaches can breathe fresh ideas into old problems and can often catalyse breakthroughs. Artificial photosynthesis for sustainable fuel development is also a highly interdisciplinary field, and as a research area, it aligns with my personal values about the importance of environmental sustainability.

I came to the Department of Chemistry more than five years ago as a Marie Curie Incoming International Fellow to work on artificial photosynthesis in Professor Erwin Reisner’s group. I was excited by the notion that, coming from quite a different background, I would be able to bring unique perspectives into the field. I also liked the idea of being immersed in a new learning experience. It turned out to be more challenging – and at the same time more fulfilling – than I expected.

We’ve designed new catalytic systems to turn sunlight into 'solar fuels'. In my postdoctoral research, I was interested in turning sunlight into chemical fuels we call 'solar fuels' – sustainable and green alternatives to our current unsustainable and polluting carbon-based fuels. Plants have been carrying out this for millions of years through the process of photosynthesis, enabled by a set of special proteins that make up the photosynthetic electron transport chain. I coordinated a team that studied these enzymes and the reactions that they carry out. We incorporated them into several prototype systems that can use sunlight to turn water into hydrogen. We hope this work will help make such fuels available to everyone in future.

We still need to understand the basic chemistry and physics behind many components of photosynthesis. There are many fundamental questions that remain to be answered both within biological and artificial photosynthetic systems. Mainly, these relate to the flow of electrons and how they can be more efficiently generated and used in catalysis. During my postdoctoral research, I wired photosystem II, nature’s water oxidation enzyme that kick-starts photosynthesis, to custom-made electrodes to study enzyme functionality and to perform light-driven fuel forming reactions. This allowed me to understand the ‘bottlenecks’ of different types of photosynthetic systems, and where improvements need to be made.

My BBSRC Fellowship allows me to drive my own research vision with my own research group. I started my own research group in 2018, and my focus is to develop new tools and approaches for studying photosynthesis (both biological and artificial) and utilising it in renewable energy generation and agricultural/sensor technologies. I’m supported by a generous grant that enables me to have postdocs and the necessary equipment – in particular, a sophisticated 3D printer that can print a large variety of materials, from living cells to metals.

The Fellowship will also help me build my leadership skills. It aims to get Fellows on the trajectory to leading our own research groups confidently and successfully. We have a BBSRC mentor that comes to visit our lab once a year. I’ve also attended workshops where I learned about the economy of science and leadership. I really like that this scheme offers not just money but the necessary support to help me become a well-rounded leader in science. I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity.

I hope my career will lead to the uncovering of many ‘unknown unknowns’. I want to drive innovative and high-value research that addresses important problems in our world today, and I want to achieve this while fostering a healthy and positive lab culture. Like any scientist, I hope my career will lead to the uncovering of many ‘unknown unknowns’ that will leave a positive impact on the world.

It’s important to me that we inspire more students – both girls and boys – to choose science. I still turn up to meetings and workshops where I am either the only woman or one of the few women present. However, this is happening less and less, and I feel that there is a real effort being made by our institutions to be inclusive and to lower barriers. The old barriers still exist, but I’m optimistic since I know how determined women can be.

In the meantime, I think we shouldn’t forget about positive action being needed to foster men to challenge their own status quo to become strong counterparts of the future.

 

Dr Jenny Zhang is a group leader and BBSRC David Phillips Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, where she is re-wiring photosynthesis to generate renewable fuels. Here, she tells us about why she switched from cancer research to sustainability, how her Fellowship programme is helping her develop leadership skills, and why eggs in her childhood home would regularly go missing.

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Green-sky thinking for propulsion and power

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Dec 04, 2019.

We’re seeing a transformational change in the propulsion and power sectors. Aviation and power generation have brought huge benefits – connecting people across the world and providing safe, reliable electricity to billions – but reducing their carbon emissions is now urgently needed.

Electrification is one way to decarbonise, certainly for small and medium-sized aircraft. In fact, more than 70 companies are planning a first flight of electric air vehicles by 2024. For large aircraft, no alternative to the jet engine currently exists, but radical new aircraft architectures, such as those developed by the Cambridge-MIT Silent Aircraft Initiative and the NASA N+3 project, show the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions by around 70%.

A common thread in these technologies and those needed for renewable power is their reliance on efficient, reliable turbomachinery – a technology that has been central to our work for the past 50 years. Currently we’re working on applications that include the development of electric and hybrid-electric aircraft, the generation of power from the tides and low-grade heat, like solar energy, and hydrogen-based engines.

We’re also working on existing technologies as a way of reducing the carbon emissions, like wind turbines, and developing the next generation of jet engines such as Rolls-Royce’s UltraFan engine, which will enable CO2 emission reductions of 25% by 2025. A great example is Dr Chez Hall’s research on a potential replacement for the 737. This futuristic aircraft architecture involves an electrical propulsion system being embedded in the aircraft fuselage, allowing up to 15% reduction in fuel burn.

A key element of meeting the decarbonisation challenge is to accelerate technology development. And so, over the past five years, our primary focus has been the process itself – we've been asking ‘can we develop technology faster and cheaper?’ The answer is yes – at least 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper. Our solution is to merge the digital and physical systems involved. In 2017, we undertook a pioneering trial of a new method of technology development. A team of academic researchers and industrial designers were embedded in the Whittle and given four technologies to develop.

The results were astonishing. In 2005, a similar trial took the Whittle two years. In 2017, the agile testing methods took less than a week, demonstrating a hundred times faster technology development.

We describe it as ‘tightening the circle’ between design, manufacture and testing. Design times for new technologies have been reduced from around a month to one or two days using augmented and machine-learning-based design systems. These make use of in-house flow simulation software that is accelerated by graphics cards developed for the computer gaming industry.

Manufacturing times for new technologies have been cut from two or three months to two or three days by directly linking the design systems to rows of in-house 3D printing and rapid machining tools, rather than relying on external suppliers. Designers can now try out new concepts in physical form very soon after an idea is conceived.

Testing times have been reduced from around two months to a few days by undertaking a ‘value stream analysis’ of the experimental process. Each sequential operation was analysed, enabling us to remove over 95% of the tasks, producing a much leaner process of assembly and disassembly. Test results are automatically fed back to the augmented design system, allowing it to learn from both the digital and the physical data.

There’s a natural human timescale of about a week whereby if you go from idea to result then you have a virtuous circle between understanding and inspiration. We’ve found that when the technology development timescale approaches the human timescale – as it does in our leaner process – then innovation explodes.

The New Whittle Laboratory will house the National Centre for Propulsion and Power, due to open in 2022 with funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute. A national asset, the Centre is designed to combine a scaled-up version of the agile test capability with state-of-the-art manufacturing capability to cover around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic technology needs.

Key to the success of the Whittle Laboratory has been its strong industrial partnerships – with Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Siemens for over 50 years, and with Dyson for around five years. So another component of the new development will be a ‘Propulsion and Power Challenge Space’. Here, teams from across the University will co-locate with industry to develop the technologies necessary to decarbonise the propulsion and power sectors.

The length and depth of these partnerships have so many benefits. They’ve enabled technology strategy to be shared at the highest level, and new projects to be kicked off quickly, without the need for contract lawyers. Joint industry–academic technology transfer teams move seamlessly between industry and academia, ensuring that technologies are successfully transferred into product.

Most importantly, the partnerships provide a source of ‘real’ high-impact research projects. It’s these long-term industrial partnerships that have made the Whittle the world’s most academically successful propulsion and power research laboratory.

We are at a pivotal moment, in terms of both Cambridge’s history of leading technology development in propulsion and power, and humanity’s need to decarbonise these sectors. Just 50 years ago, at the opening of the original Whittle Laboratory, research and industry faced the challenge of making mass air travel a reality. Now the New Whittle Laboratory will enable us to lead the way in making it green.

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

A rapid way of turning ideas into new technologies in the aviation and power industries has been developed at Cambridge’s Whittle Laboratory. Here, Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle, describes how researchers plan to scale the process to cover around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic technology needs.

A key element of meeting the decarbonisation challenge is to accelerate technology development. And so, over the past five years, our primary focus has been the process itself – asking ‘can we develop technology faster and cheaper?’
Rob Miller

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Cambridge Zero

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Energy. Published on Nov 26, 2019.

Shorthand Story: 
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Shorthand Story Head: 
Cambridge Zero
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CAMBRIDGE ZERO

Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today.

Cambridge Zero, the University's ambitious new climate initiative, will generate ideas and innovations to help shape a sustainable future - and equip future generations of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

Cambridge is the brand-new holder of a dubious record. On 25 July 2019, the temperature at the University’s Botanic Garden hit a new all-time record high for the UK: 38.7°C.

Few expect this record to hold for long. As temperatures rise globally, extreme weather events – floods, storms, droughts and heatwaves – are becoming the new normal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly articulated that, if this continues, we risk venturing into a world of climate-driven food shortages, water stress, refugees, species loss and catastrophic shocks such as the collapse of the vast polar ice sheets.

Scientists have been warning for decades that man-made climate change is happening. But with a few exceptions, we have done little about it. In the past 18 months, however, there has been a noticeable shift.

“The basic science hasn’t changed: what is starting to change is public opinion,” says Dr Emily Shuckburgh (pictured), one of the UK’s leading climate scientists. “As the impacts of climate change are starting to be felt around the world, it’s finally cutting through that we need to do something and we need to do it now. If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today.”

Shuckburgh recently joined the University from the British Antarctic Survey to lead an ambitious new programme: Cambridge Zero. The programme will harness the full breadth of the University’s research capabilities across the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences to respond to climate change and support the transition to a resilient, sustainable future.

Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener fuels, technologies and materials. It’s about addressing every aspect of a zero carbon future: the impact it will have on our lives, our work, our society and our economy, and ensuring decisions are based on the best available knowledge.

By developing a bold programme of education, research, demonstration projects and knowledge exchange focused on supporting a zero carbon world, the initiative’s ambition is to generate and disseminate the ideas and innovations that will shape our future – and to equip a future generation of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades.

Its launch comes a few months after the UK became the first major world economy to legislate for net zero emissions. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will mean a fundamental change over the coming decades in all aspects of our economy, including how we generate energy, and how we build decarbonisation into policy and investment.

Emily Shuckburgh

CLEAN ENERGY

“The challenge is how to develop the technologies for the energy transition at the scale, and on the timescales, that we need,” says Professor Sir Richard Friend, Director of Energy Transitions@Cambridge, which brings together over 250 Cambridge researchers working on areas such as bioenergy, batteries, photovoltaics, carbon capture, propulsion and power, and cities and transport.

Friend is one of the UK’s leaders in the development of next-generation solar cells and super-efficient LEDs, and has founded several spin-out companies based on his research. Since the 1980s, his group at the Cavendish Laboratory has been developing materials for low-cost solar cells that could surpass silicon’s efficiency in converting sunlight into energy.

Through initiatives such as the Henry Royce Institute, the UK’s national institute for materials science research and innovation, Cambridge researchers are also developing next-generation materials for energy storage and use.

“Cambridge is already one of the UK’s leading universities in battery science and a major contributor to the Faraday Institution’s battery programme for electric vehicles,” says Professor Manish Chhowalla, the Cambridge Royce Champion. “The Royce facilities help us supplement the chemistry and physics research we’re already doing with engineering approaches that will help bring our research to market faster.”

Friend adds that working in collaboration with industry is the only way to enable the energy transition. Although Cambridge has the research and knowledge base to identify new solutions, it does not have the capabilities to produce those solutions on an industrial scale: “It’s important to understand what industry actually wants, rather than what we presume it wants.”

Solar panels

CLIMATE CHANGE POLICY

Even if a scientist or engineer develops a new technology that solves a problem associated with the energy transition, how do policy changes make the most of innovation?

This question lies at the heart of the work of Laura Diaz Anadon, Professor of Climate Change Policy in Cambridge’s Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance, and a lead author on the IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report.

“When I first moved into policy and economics work after my PhD in chemical engineering, I was focused on solutions as if they were things that people could and would start using tomorrow. I realised quickly that I wasn’t thinking about cost-effectiveness and the role of policy, regulation, business models, political support and their impacts. That was really eye-opening for me,” says Diaz Anadon.

“Climate change policy is particularly challenging as it cuts across so many sectors and demands engagement with many different stakeholders,” says Dr David Reiner, from the Energy Policy Research Group at Cambridge Judge Business School, and one of the co-editors of the recent book In Search of Good Energy Policy with Professor Michael Pollitt. “Good policy isn’t just about getting the numbers right, because even the numbers are controversial,” says Reiner. “Different groups have different priorities, so how do we determine which numbers to put stock in and which things are actually important?”

Shuckburgh is echoing this broad approach in Cambridge Zero. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to make an impact, which is why it’s vital we bring in multiple perspectives to ensure that we’re translating scientific knowledge into innovations that are rapidly deployed in the real world – and robust, evidence-based policy that works for everyone,” she says.

“It’s great to see climate change finally breaking through as a priority with the public,” says Pollitt. “But the challenge has always been when you start asking about specifics. Lifestyle changes are cheap, but they’re intrusive. And if you aren’t willing to become a vegetarian, turn the heating down or stop flying, then you’re going to need serious decarbonisation policies to reach where we need to get to.”

A major energy policy – such as decarbonising the electricity grid or banning petrol cars – generally requires a decade of planning, and another two decades to implement. It also requires public engagement, says Pollitt: “If the public feel they haven’t been consulted on a new policy, they’re less likely to support it, and they need to see that these policies have benefits that minimise the negative effects. A carbon neutral economy isn’t unachievable, but there are massive challenges associated with it, and we have to face those challenges with eyes wide open.”

Protesters

SUSTAINABLE FINANCE

Beyond policy, the transition to a zero carbon future will also require unprecedented levels of government, private and institutional investment in green and low carbon technologies, services and infrastructure. And financial institutions themselves will need to move to a sustainable finance model, pricing environmental and social risks correctly.

These are areas that interest Dr Nina Seega at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, which bridges the worlds of business, policymaking and finance. “Since the attention called to the issue by the G20 Green Finance Study Group in 2016, we’ve seen lots of discussion about sustainable finance in the financial world but more action is needed to thread sustainable finance into the day-to-day work of financial firms.

“When we have conversations with financial firms, what we get is a conversation about the costs and risks of transition to a zero carbon future. However, it is refreshing to see the focus turning to opportunities of sustainable finance and the cost of not transitioning. Simply put, it is more expensive to do nothing.”

This point is illustrated by the recent Green Finance Strategy, in which the UK government predicts that the population health impacts of not delivering on emissions reductions could be around £1.7 billion per year by 2020 and £5.3 billion per year by 2030.

“Unfortunately, there is still a persistent perception that sustainable investment means sacrificing profitability, but that’s not the case,” Seega says. “A 2015 review of 2,200 studies found that sustainability has at least a non-negative, and in most cases a positive, relationship to profitability. Prioritising sustainability does not mean sacrificing profitability.”

Wind turbines

REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC

One of the major successes of global efforts in energy and climate policy has been advances in developing low carbon solutions, which is beginning to pay off. Just since 2010, the average cost of producing electricity globally from solar PV panels has decreased by 77%, and from wind turbines by 34%, and the cost of storing energy in lithium-ion batteries has decreased by 89%, in turn making electric vehicles less expensive.

“Nobody really predicted that costs would come down so fast,” says Diaz Anadon, who analysed these figures as part of INNOPATHS, a project funded by the European Union. “Governments around the world have been key drivers of these cost reductions, both through investments in R&D, and policies to incentivise their commercialisation, such as feed-in tariffs, carbon prices and other regulations.”

Even so, considering the scale and urgency of the climate change problem, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But Shuckburgh is optimistic that a zero carbon world is achievable.

“Cambridge has the power to bring together industry, finance, policymakers, NGOs and other partners to jointly propose ambitious solutions. But we all need to work together to make this happen,” she says.

“The human race has achieved incredible things: lifted billions of people out of poverty, cured diseases, travelled to the moon. The biggest challenge now is how we preserve our only home for future generations, and we need to respond to the challenge with all of our efforts. We cannot fail.” 

Cost of renewable energy

SNAPSHOT: THE INVESTMENT RESEARCHER

Understanding what society must do to decarbonise is the most complex and important puzzle we have ever had to solve, says Dr Ellen Quigley, a researcher at Cambridge Judge Business School and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

“We need electrification of our energy systems, decarbonisation of supply chains, new technologies that will help us cut emissions by at least half by 2030 – or sooner – and all of this needs a financial ecosystem that is up to the task. Plus, we are the last generation who can do something about catastrophic climate change.”

Appointed earlier this year as the Advisor to the Chief Financial Officer of the University, Quigley is establishing a research programme to understand how shifting the focus of investment – at institutional, national and global levels – can achieve system-wide changes that “will help us move rapidly and justly” towards decarbonisation.

“I’m one of many who are worrying about whether the financial system is fit for purpose in an era of climate crisis. My research is looking at everything an institution like the University can do in terms of responsible investment – from encouraging financing of decarbonisation spin-outs, to adopting soil management techniques to sequester carbon, to supporting government policies like carbon pricing.

“Everything we do here in Cambridge could be a useful template for other institutions. We are picking the things that are most effective and moving as quickly as possible in this very brief period we have to make the difference we need to make.”

Dr Ellen Quigley
Summary: 

If we are to avert a climate disaster, we must sharply reduce our emissions, starting today. Cambridge Zero, the University's ambitious new climate initiative, will generate ideas and innovations to help shape a sustainable future - and equip future generations of leaders with the skills to navigate the global challenges of the coming decades. 

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Section: 

About Us

Energy Transitions@Cambridge is a University-wide Interdisciplinary Research Centre which links the activities of over 250 academics working in energy research, at all career levels and across 30 departments and faculties.