Nine ways our engineers are building a greener world

It’s Green Britain Week this week. While debate rages between environmental campaigners and those wandering the corridors of power, engineers are ever pragmatic and practical. Our researchers are working on a range of technological advances that will reduce the carbon in our atmosphere.

Here’s nine of our projects:

  1. Wind power: Harnessing wind power will be a key component of a greener energy mix. In partnership with Offshore Renewable Energy, the Wind Blade Research Hub is pushing the boundaries of current technology to produce a 13MW turbine. They are working on blades that will be 100m long, requiring new designs, materials and manufacturing processes. The world-leading expertise of the Bristol Composites Institute (ACCIS) is crucial in delivering this and other sustainable structures.
  2. Offshore wind and tidal lagoons: In another initiative to tap into the UK’s potential for offshore wind and tidal energy, a proposed tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay could provide electricity for more than 155,000 homes. It will take a solution that is affordable and scaleable to turn this idea into a reality. Researchers from Bristol and Plymouth Universities are part of a project to design and develop a prototype.
  3. Solar Cells: Solar energy is getting ever-more affordable. A £2 million grant from the EPSRC has funded work to develop new low-cost photo-voltaic materials. Researchers from the Bristol Electrochemistry Group’s PV Team are looking to replace elements such as gallium, indium, cadmium and tellurium which are rare, expensive to extract and toxic.
  4. Electric Vehicles: The move away from petrol/diesel and towards low carbon hybrid/fully electric vehicles depends on the availability of compact, highly efficient engines. The Electrical Energy Management Group are innovating and testing solutions. Their industrial collaboration on high performance electro-mechanical drives is important for the traction, steering and road handling of the cars of the future.
  5. Energy Storage: If the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, how can we store all that free energy? This question is being addressed by researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Surrey as part of self-funded company Superdielectrics Ltd. They have discovered new hydrophilic materials, like those used in contact lenses, that could rival the storage capacity of traditional batteries and charge much faster. Rolls-Royce recently signed a collaboration agreement with Superdielectrics, highlighting the keenness of industry to find new solutions.
  6. Microgrids: Ditching fossil fuels and halting deforestation can’t happen unless there’s a sustainable energy alternative. It’s estimated that 1.2bn people across the world don’t have access to electricity. By working with NGOs, local authorities and residents in rural areas, researchers from the Electrical Energy Management Group are designing a micro-grid system, intended for remote communities. It could generate enough power for 250 homes, using wind, solar and micro-hydro energy. A scaleable modular design means extra units can be added as and when.
  7. Water management: Climate change is having an impact on our water cycle with flood patterns already changing. The way we manage water resources will be increasingly key to mitigate natural disasters and provide clean drinking water to a growing population. The Water and Environmental Engineering group brings together engineers and scientists, taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the complex issues raised through modelling, measuring and prediction.
  8. Nuclear: Although controversial, nuclear energy will be part of the low carbon energy picture for the foreseeable future. The South West Nuclear Hub brings together academics from numerous disciplines. Their research ensures that nuclear systems are safe, reliable and efficient. Also focusing on safety, the department of Civil Engineering has been exploring the seismic integrity of nuclear reactors using the University’s impressive earthquake shaking table. The Plex project was one of the most complex shaking table experiments ever attempted anywhere in the world.
  9. Efficient Aircraft: Aviation is a major contributor to global CO2 emissions, burning more fossil fuels per passenger than any other form of transport. The Advanced Simulation and Modelling of Virtual Systems (ASiMoV) partnership aims to produce a jet engine simulation so accurate that designs can be signed off by the civil aviation authorities pre-production. It is hoped that by modelling the physical effects of thermo-mechanics, electromagnetics and computational fluid dynamics, more cost effective and energy-efficient engines will get off the ground.

LettUs Grow – low carbon food of the future

LettUs Grow was founded in 2015 by three Bristol University Students – Ben Crowther and Charlie Guy (Engineering Design) and Jack Farmer (Biology).

As a company they wanted to tackle some of the biggest problems facing the planet, by reducing the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce. Their solution was to design and develop aeroponic irrigation and control technology for indoor farms. On World Food Day, they share their thoughts:-

Global warming and greenhouse gas emissions are two of the defining problems of our generation. Agriculture is a big piece of the puzzle, producing a third of global emissions. But the problem of global food security is much more than just emissions. A stable food supply is a fundamental human need and there is a severe lack of innovative solutions to help feed the next generation.

A common misconception about plants is that they only “breathe” through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots.

We knew things needed to change, so we devoted ourselves to finding food-focused solutions. By combining our backgrounds in engineering and biology we’ve found innovative ways to help indoor farmers scale up their operations to compete with traditional agriculture. Our novel technology builds on the successes of hydroponics and addresses many of the issues which have been holding back indoor farming.

A common misconception about plants is that they only “breathe” through their leaves, but part of the oxygen and CO2 they use is also absorbed through their roots. By suspending our plants’ roots in the nutrient dense mist rather than in water, we’ve overcome some of the problems faced by hydroponics. Because they’re not submerged, plants can respire optimally during their whole life cycle. Using this system, called aeroponics, we’ve seen up to a 70% increase in crop yields over hydroponics.

The UK was ravaged by storms and snow from February to March, scorched by months of temperatures exceeding 30°C.

Chard growing in one of the aeroponic grow beds

As is often the way, aeroponic growing’s biggest strength can also be its greatest downfall. Most systems produce their mist by pushing nutrient-rich water through strips of nozzles. The small holes quickly become clogged with falling plant debris and a buildup of salts and nutrients – much like how limescale forms inside a kettle. We’ve developed a system without any nozzles, so there is nothing to clog and break.  Alongside our patent-pending hardware, we’ve also developed an integrated farm management software system, called Ostara®, which reduces labour requirements, optimises conditions for plant growth and makes farmers’ lives easier.

The incredible weather of 2018 has shown the need for this sort of technology. The UK was ravaged by storms and snow from February to March, scorched by months of temperatures exceeding 30°C during the summer and more snows are predicted before the end of the year. These extreme weather conditions put an enormous strain on farmers. They’re faced with the choice of swallowing their losses or increasing their prices – something tricky to do when at the mercy of supermarkets!

If you’re keen to see one of our aeroponic grow beds in action and learn how we can help feed the next generation, come visit us at the People’s Tech on Saturday 20th October in the Engine Shed. We’ll be there along with another agri-tech startup, the Small Robot Company, who’re replacing bulky inefficient tractors with small robots. Tickets start from as little as £3 and can be bought from here: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/peoples-tech-october-tickets-49245025196.

Visit the LettUs Grow website for more information.

Year in Industry with EA Piling in Uganda and Kenya

Engineering Design student Joe McFarlane has just returned from his Year in Industry in Uganda and Kenya. As well as having a significant impact on the company’s processes and submitting a range of successful tenders, he spent six months project managing a landing bay project. Joe was the youngest and most senior person on site, managing a team of 50 people. The company have already asked him back when he graduates.

Here’s Joe’s experience: 

I spent my Year in Industry working for East African Piling in Uganda and Kenya. The company specialises in a variety of piling solutions for private and public infrastructure markets across East Africa.

At first I was mainly working on design and costing proposals for upcoming projects. Services offered include rotary bored piling, continuous flight auger piling, sheet piling, soil nailing, soil anchors and pile load and integrity testing. Through the year I contributed towards 11 bids, 4 of which the company won.

After this stint working on tenders, I moved on to become the Project Manager of a new marine slipway on the coast of Kenya. The slipway extends 74m into the Indian Ocean and was constructed using a sheet pile cofferdam. At the deepest end of the cofferdam, the maximum retained depth of water was 6 m. The completed structure is 105 m long and 6.5 m wide.

We built the cofferdam using a 75 m long barge as a platform. A crane-slung vibrating hammer was used to drive the sheet piles into the seabed to the required depth. Once the cofferdam had been built, the water was pumped out using two 4-inch submersible pumps to create a dry working space. The existing seabed was excavated to a 10% gradient and back-filled with hard-core material. After this, precast concrete slabs, haunches and underlying geotextile material were placed into position from the end of the slipway up to the junction with the existing road. The final step of construction was to flood the cofferdam and cut the sheet piles at a gradient to be flush with the slipway’s haunches.

    

Despite having to overcome significant challenges over the course of the project, it was a major achievement to produce a quality product which meets all client requirements, within the specified budget and two weeks ahead of schedule.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Year in Industry, having learned an incredible amount about the design, management and implementation of engineering projects. I would recommend it to anyone studying Engineering. With the placement proving to be such a success, I look forward to working with the company again in the future.

 

Hear from Engineering Design student Topaz Maitland, who is currently on her 3rd year industry placement designing a renewable energy turbine in Nepal. http://cabot-institute.blogspot.com/2018/09/my-work-experience-designing-renewable.html