As the home institution of such global luminaries as Lord Kelvin, James Watt, W.J.M. Rankine and Joseph Black, our reputation in energy engineering science is long-standing and world-renowned.
Energy engineering research at Glasgow today focuses principally on the efficiency of energy conversion technologies, in terms of both energy-exergy balance and minimisation of carbon emissions.
Taking a pragmatic view of the rapidly-evolving energy sector globally and regionally – not least the ambitious decarbonisation strategies being pioneered in Scotland – we address both development / deployment of renewables and the most responsible further uses of fossil fuels and nuclear energy as bridges to a decarbonised energy future.
Our research is deeply rooted in partnerships with industry, whilst drawing on the most rigorous scientific approaches, the most powerful numerical tools and the very latest new materials. Our work is avowedly multi-disciplinary, and as such can be categorised in a number of ways, depending on the balance of core scientific disciplines invoked in the research, or the interests of distinct end-user communities.
Renewables of high thermal efficiency
Renewable heat has until recently received scant attention compared with renewable electricity generation, even though heat accounts for around twice as much total energy use (and a corresponding proportion of carbon emissions) in the UK and other high-latitude countries. Renewably-sourced combined heat and power is a priority for future innovation, and at Glasgow we focus particularly on:
- Geothermal energy (Yu, Westaway, Paul, Banks and Karimi), embracing both deep systems and shallow systems using heat-pumps
- Algal biomass (Watson, Sharp, Paul).
Thermal management is also key to improving the overall efficiency of processes which deliver renewable energy only in the form of electrical power. We research the use of thermoelectric (Knox, Paul) and thermoacoustic (Yu, Younger, Karimi) processes for diverse applications including low-energy thermoacoustic refrigeration (Yu, Younger) and thermoelectric harvesting of excess heat on solar panels to complement diurnal storage and improve the efficiency of photovoltaic processes (Knox, Paul). Similar thermal energy harvesting processes are also being explored to render economic algal bioenergy (Watson, Sharp, Younger) and novel applications of hydropower for renewable heat supplies to rural communities in cold regions (Younger, Banks).
Decarbonised fossil fuels
Earnest analyses of the energy balances of all but a few countries indicate that, even at the most optimistic rates of uptake of renewables, continued reliance on fossil fuels is inevitable for the foreseeable future, for baseload and despatchable generation of power (providing the envelope of secure supply within which the variable output of renewables can be accommodated), and for heating and transport fuels provision. There is therefore a pressing need to provide means of using coal, oil and natural gas which do not give rise to unsustainable atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide. While public attention in recent years has focused heavily on shale gas, this is but one example of ‘unconventional gas’ sources which also include coalbed methane and underground coal gasification (UCG). The latter is particularly attractive, as UCG has far higher energy yields per borehole, and particularly lends itself to storage of captured carbon dioxide in the substantial underground voids which it creates. Working in close partnership with industrial pioneers such as Five-Quarter Ltd, we are blurring the boundaries between different unconventional sources to develop integrated, environmentally-friendly “deep gas winning” allied to carbon capture and storage (CCS). This involves multi-disciplinary investigations encompassing novel drilling and borehole completion technologies, optimisation of gasification processes, and high efficiency gas separation, liquefaction and end-use.
High efficiency energy conversion processes
Attaining high efficiency of electricity end-use depends in large measure on the availability of efficient electrical and power electronic drives and machines. The development of these technologies is currently benefitting greatly from advances in digital control of conventional motors and power electronic converters. Working with major industrial players, motor manufacturers and burgeoning end-users in emerging renewables markets, we use mature industrial partnerships (such as SPEED and RenewNet) to achieve rapid Knowledge Transfer of our latest findings to SMEs active in renewable power technologies. We are also active in energy harvesting in a wide range of applications, particularly using thermoelectric devices (e.g. Seebeck Effect power generation, Peltier heat pumps; Stirling Engines and the use of Maximum Power Point Tracking to maximise the yield of solar-powered systems), and thermoacoustic equivalents of Stirling engines that have no moving parts. Our research takes full advantage of the world-leading capabilities in development of novel micro- and nano-materials in the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre.
Safe and clean nuclear energy
Nuclear energy is currently undergoing something of a renaissance globally, as it is one of the few low-carbon technologies able to deliver baseload power at very high capacity. Nevertheless, given the potential consequences of system failure, nuclear power plants remain controversial, and their safe and clean operation demands the very highest standards of monitoring and safeguarding from abnormalities in operating conditions. Early diagnosis of the potential onset of excursions from intended operating conditions requires real-time monitoring of, and response to, key parameters describing process performance. It also requires accurate tracking of potentially hazardous materials throughout the nuclear energy generation cycle (Howell). Finally, when all useful energy has been extracted from radioactive feedstocks, safe decommissioning and disposal of spent fuels and internal plant components is required. Research into safeguarding nuclear material throughout plant processes has led to the development of robust procedures which have been widely adopted by regulatory authorities. Data processing requirements are high, as it is necessary to quality-control every step in process characterisation and present the findings in a format amenable to use by the nuclear inspectorate
Sensing and simulation of energy systems
Monitoring of dynamics of performance is a requirement common to all forms of energy conversion and use. We focus particularly on the development and application of sensors for the most challenging applications in the energy conversion – for processes occurring at very high temperatures and pressures. These include:
- Fibre-optic applications for extreme environments (Sharp, Watson), which involves the growth and characterisation of single-crystal fibres capable of acting as sensors for (e.g.) temperature and radiation
- Optical diagnostic techniques (Yu), such as Particle Image Velocimetry and Planar Laser Induced Fluorescence, which are of particular use in characterising thermofluid dynamics
This research benefits from lively interactions with the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre and the Scottish Sensor Systems Centre.
Having obtained data, interpretation relies principally on the testing of consistency of measurements with concepts by means of rigorous physics-based mathematical modelling, including computational fluid dynamics and allied numerical simulation tools. Algorithmic developments include Large-Eddy and Direct Numerical Simulation techniques for unsteady flows and turbulence, taking full advantage of high-performance parallel computing facilities. Applications range from fluid and heat transfer in the liquid phase to modelling of combustion and gasification processes.