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PhD student Rana Faisal Shahzad and Dr Shahid Rasul from Northumbria University’s Energy Futures group discussing a CO2 recycling project with Dan Ferguson, Senior Site Aftercare Manager of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, at the SUEZ plant in North Tyneside.

Professor Neil Beattie

Professor of Energy Innovation, Department of Mathematics,
Physics and Electrical Engineering, Northumbria University

With the world facing an unprecedented energy challenge and many countries committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, there is an urgent need for sustainable solutions and technologies.

Energy Futures, a diverse community of around 50 academics across a variety of disciplines at Northumbria University, was formed with the aim of decarbonisation through research impact.

The research carried out by the team spans photovoltaics, thin film materials, batteries, materials characterisation, electrical power engineering, heat, sustainable design and the built environment.

Professor Neil Beattie, Professor of Energy Innovation, in Northumbria’s Department of Mathematics, Physics and Electrical Engineering, calls the initiative a “front door” to the University’s energy-related work.

“We recognise that getting to net zero carbon dioxide emissions very much transcends traditional disciplines like physics, chemistry or engineering,” he explains. “It’s much more multidisciplinary, involving policymakers, engineers, the public, investors, architects and other stakeholders.”

Collective research power

Northumbria also partners with the Universities of Durham and Newcastle to run the Centre for Doctoral Training in Renewable Energy Northeast Universities (ReNU), sponsored by the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The city of Newcastle, combined with Durham, is now host to the largest concentration of researchers outside London, according to the recent national review of research excellence across UK universities. ReNU aims to train 65 PhD students by 2027, creating a pipeline of highly-skilled doctoral graduates with outstanding problem-solving abilities to drive forward innovation in small scale renewable and sustainable distributed energy technologies.

Universities hold the key to solving the challenges we face and through collaborative research and innovation we can make a real difference now and in the future.

Working with industry

Together, the combined ReNU and Energy Futures platform includes a portfolio of over 30 industry partners, ranging from large multinationals such as Airbus, Siemens and Johnson Matthey, to smaller companies closer to home, including Northumbrian Water and local solar power provider Power Roll.

Projects have included developing solar photovoltaics with greater flexibility than the current standardised shapes and patterns of solar panels, offering aesthetic integration with the built environment and transportation sectors. This will result in more widespread deployment of photovoltaics beyond just solar farms and roof-top systems.

Researchers also work with the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Northumberland which has unique testing facilities for renewable energy technologies systems, as well as collaborating with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore to understand fundamental materials science that has the potential to create more efficient solar cells.

The platform also offers professional training in carbon accounting and management. “It’s about leading and setting the agenda for how and where we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and presenting our vision to industry of how to do that,” Beattie explains.

The next generation

The University also runs an outreach programme called NUSTEM, which engages with regional school children and young people to increase their interest in STEM subjects. The programme has recorded more than 100,000 interactions with local young people since its inception.

“We recognise STEM will have a big role to play in solving the world’s problems, including the climate emergency, so we have created a full spectrum of skills training going right the way through from engaging with school pupils to training PhD students, and to higher level jobs in industry,” Beattie says.

Equality, diversity and inclusivity

The University prides itself on the diversity of these programmes, especially as research suggests that prioritising equality, diversity and inclusivity leads to greater levels of innovation.

“Getting to net zero and the climate emergency are huge problems. We need all the talents that we can get our hands on to solve that,” explains Beattie.

As Energy Futures seeks to influence UK science policy as well as support outreach and training, Beattie believes there is good reason to be hopeful.

“Universities hold the key to solving the challenges we face and through collaborative research and innovation we can make a real difference now and in the future.”

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