Nanoscale solutions applied to global challenges

Desalination and re-imagining aeroplane and ship hull designs for the best fuel efficiency are two potential applications of a new £2.4m research project at Strathclyde University.

Prof Jason Reese of the University’s Faculty of Engineering has been awarded the grant by the EPSRC, alongside support worth £720,000 from nine industrial partners, to lead research investigating how engineering flow systems can help respond to global health, transportation, energy and climate challenges over the next 40 years.

The United Nations estimates that by 2050, four billion people in 48 countries will lack sufficient water. As 97 per cent of the water on Earth is saltwater, large-scale technologies to make seawater or other contaminated water drinkable are therefore needed urgently.

Similarly, figures from the US Energy Information Administration forecast that China’s passenger transportation energy use per capita will triple over the next 20 years, and India’s will double. Improving the fuel efficiency of air and marine transport is a strategic priority for governments and companies around the world, and would reduce the emissions.

The cross-disciplinary team includes Prof Reese, Dr Duncan Lockerby from Warwick University, and Prof David Emerson from Daresbury Laboratory in Warrington. The team will deliver new techniques for simulating fluid dynamics at the micro and nano scales.

Prof Reese said: ‘Micro and nano scale engineering presents a surprising but important opportunity to help meet pressing global challenges. This means developing working devices some 10 to 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

‘For example, early indications are that membranes of carbon nanotubes have remarkable properties in filtering salt ions and other contaminants from water. In addition, embedding micro systems or nano structures over a vehicle’s surface promises to substantially reduce the drag of aircraft and ships.

‘But to enable the development of these technologies, it’s essential that we get the fluids engineering right. At the moment, very few tools exist that help us to understand and simulate these ‘non-equilibrium flows’. The new research will help us to bridge that gap, so that the non-intuitive flow physics can be exploited to engineer new technologies with performance beyond any currently conceived.’

The five-year research project will deliver a new technique for simulating fluid flows at the nano and micro scale, which will be deployed on three technical challenges: reducing drag in aerospace; applications of super-hydrophobic surfaces to marine transport; plus water desalination and purification.

The aim will be to predict the performance of these proposed technologies, optimise their design and propose new designs which exploit flow behaviour at this scale for technological impact.