Energetic future

As oil and gas prices soar, the UK launches a major initiative to address energy challenges of next 50 years.

London’s Imperial College has launched a multi-million-pound initiative to predict and address the energy challenges of the next 50 years.

The opening of the Energy Futures Laboratory comes as soaring oil and gas prices, security concerns, and uncertainty over the future of nuclear and renewable energy present the power industry with some of the biggest challenges it has ever faced.

‘Energy research has been neglected over the past couple of decades because the government assumed that if any were needed, it would be done by industry,’ said Lord Oxburgh, former Shell chairman and member of the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, who opened the centre.

This, however, was not the case — although research has been carried out, it hasn’t been done in a focused, directed manner, involving all the different disciplines, he added.

One of the large projects the laboratory will tackle is a £4.5m initiative with BP to research the use of energy in cities, and how this affects the way it should be generated.

According to David Fisk, the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Professor of Sustainable Development and co-director of the project, by 2030, 80 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, and in China, the urban proportion of the population is set to increase from 36 to 60 per cent. With city dwellers typically using three times more energy than their rural neighbours, this will have a huge effect on energy needs.

The research will investigate the savings that could be made by integrating energy use across a city. The technique is similar to that used in petrochemical complexes, explained Nilay Shah of Imperial’s process systems engineering department, also a co-director of the project.

‘What these plants have done very successfully is to ensure that every resource is used to its full potential; for example, waste heat from one process is used in another. We see energy efficiency improvements of 20–50 per cent from these techniques,’ he said. The project is to run alongside the £6.1m Keeping Nuclear Options Open programme.

According to Prof Geoffrey Maitland, who will head the lab’s energy engineering research, gas and oil will continue to be important for energy generation, but the engineering issues are likely to become much more complex.

Current oil and gas extraction techniques leave up to 60 per cent of the resources behind, so the team will look at ways such as injection of water or gas to enhance extraction, and how this can be improved by installing pressure and flow sensors inside the oil wells to tell operators when the oil and gas in a particular section of a deposit are exhausted; and the use of subterranean valves to direct the flow of the recovery media.

If CO2 is used as the recovery medium, said Maitland, this can be combined with carbon sequestration. And as a further stage, advanced, compact chemical processing equipment — including refining, cracking and reaction systems — could be installed in the wells, using the high pressure and temperature of the fossil fuel deposit to power their transformation into useful products before they reach the surface.

Prof Goran Strbac who will be leading the group’s power engineering effort, is to look at how new distribution systems can help improve efficiency.

The current model, with a few large generators which must respond almost instantaneously to minute-by-minute changes in demand, is likely to be supplemented by a network of smaller-scale distributed systems, generating lower voltage power.

‘To handle hundreds of thousands of smaller generators, we need an active distribution system,’ said Strbac, ‘So the source of control of the electricity supply is in the way it is distributed, not in the way it is generated. But to do that, we need to work on the control architecture of the system, which is the only way that all these diverse sources of power can be integrated.’