Opinion: The need for a Scottish Institute of Technology

Dick Winchester
Dick Winchester
Dick Winchester
Opinion by Dick Winchester

I’m concerned.  I follow a large number of UK and overseas university and energy related research institutes both on Twitter and directly.  It helps keep me up to speed on what the latest research work is and where it’s going on.

Following a recent request to the Energy Technology Partnership for information on Scottish fuel cell related research whose answer – frankly – really depressed me, I’ve been looking a little closer at what our competitors are up to particularly in relation to hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen production and storage.

Why? Well not just because I’m a fervent believer in the development of the hydrogen economy where hydrogen pretty much directly replaces virtually all hydrocarbon energy applications but it’s a good indicator of whether a country’s research work is actually supporting future industries. Hydrogen of course features strongly in the Scottish Government’s recently published Energy Strategy as indeed it should.

Worryingly though, what I’m learning is that Scottish university research in this area is not likely to have much of an impact on either the development of a Scottish hydrogen economy or the development of a Scottish hydrogen technology industry.

I can however quote you a long list of overseas projects going on in countries we should consider rivals.

That list includes the Turkish Atatürk University chemical engineer who has developed a fuel cell that can power a vehicle for 280 miles after just five minutes of fuelling, a research group at Tokyo Tech which discovered an ammonia synthesis catalyst which functions at high efficiency at low temperatures making it an even more viable method of storing hydrogen, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s $20m of funding for Renewable Hydrogen For Export based also on the use of ammonia, the work going on in China using new organic liquid storage mediums for hydrogen or the work by Washington State University on  a sponge-like nanofoam catalyst made of the inexpensive metals iron and nickel to make fuel cells considerably more cheaper and efficient.

This list goes on and on and gets longer every day as my inbox fills up.  Our competitors are undoubtedly thinking from an industrially strategic standpoint and the rate at which they’re commissioning and undertaking fuel cell and hydrogen related research would appear to be accelerating.

Importantly, much of it is also based on what is now being described as “Mission Orientated Innovation Policy”. In other words the research has clear strategic aims.

We need cheaper, simpler catalysts for fuel cells so let’s fund the materials science teams needed to develop them. We need to have more efficient electrolysers for hydrogen production to fund the chemists and electro chemists to develop those.

We also need to develop ways of storing and transporting hydrogen both safely and efficiently.  The use of Ammonia would seem to be one route with a lot of potential but the process needs to be scalable, cheaper and efficient, so let’s fund the chemists and others to work on that.

Now to be clear there has been some good work on fuel cells and electrolysers done in Scotland.   The work at St Andrews and Glasgow universities comes to mind. A project nearing completion at Aberdeen University on the development of a “direct carbon” fuel cell apparently shows real promise.  But it’s not a hydrogen based system.

There may also be others.  However, the one thing our universities are absolutely rubbish at is letting us know what they’re spending our money on and regretfully much of the media in this country is much more interested in how overpaid the university principal is and whether or not enough students are being accepted from diverse or poor backgrounds rather than what research work the universities are doing.

However, there is clearly a problem here.

University research is primarily UK funded via the Research Councils although there is the Scottish Funding Council and up to now at least, funding has also been available from the European Union.

Talking to some researchers as to why Scotland is not doing as much research in this area as we obviously should be I was told quite clearly that when the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council  “decide to distribute funds to the broader scientific base and stop promoting individualism then maybe we will be allowed to do something useful. Till then even Turkey will do better for heaven’s sake”.  An obvious reference there to the work done at Atatürk University!

I would assume this sentiment exists elsewhere in the UK.

Looking ahead, we have some 15 mainstream universities in Scotland.  Their main role is – to put it bluntly – to act as graduate factories.  We are churning out more graduates than ever and the universities need the money.

That there is duplication in research capability goes without saying.  We also have to be realistic and recognise that as we leave the EU all the economic impact models suggest that public funding – including research funding – will become less available and of course EU funding will probably dry up completely.

So here’s an idea.

Let’s create a Scottish version of the extremely successful Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the Scottish Institute of Technology (SIT). Let’s then transfer into the SIT the “cream” of our research groups to build something that’s nimbler, “mission orientated” and dare I say it, cheaper, because it will need to be.

This means of course closing existing university departments.  It may also mean closing entire universities.  After all, will we really need 15 in a post-Brexit economy?  I doubt it.

This situation can’t be allowed to continue.  Not undertaking research work in essential sectors such as hydrogen use and production is industrially and economically unsustainable.  Similar issues exist in other topics under the low carbon technology banner.

We need to get a grip of this and it may require radical action.  Our energy future may literally depend on it and our industrial future certainly does. You can’t build a hydrogen economy without an adequate research base.