Scotland’s universities: Shouldn’t they be hot houses of frontier busting energy technologies?

Opinion: Universities should be innovation hotbeds
Opinion: Universities should be innovation hotbeds
Opinion by Energy Voice

There’s something seriously wrong with the energy technology innovation process in this country.

The apparent lack of original work going on tells me there is insufficient funding going into the sector and there is effectively no energy research strategy for researchers to get their teeth into.

I say “apparent” because finding out what the universities are doing is not at all easy.

Firstly, let’s look at the funding issue.

According to the OECD the UK spends just 0.44% of GDP on public funded research which puts it firmly at the bottom of the G8 league of so-called developed nations.

In fact, the latest data tells us that the UK’s spend is well below the average for the OECD, the Eurozone and all 28 members of the EU.

Even Italy and France – countries whose economies have been regularly ridiculed by the UK Government – are investing more in research than the UK.

In fact, France is spending roughly double the amount the UK is and the Italians around 50% more.

Putting it bluntly, for a nation that’s supposed to be supporting the creation of a more balanced economy and using policy to underpin chancellor George Osborne’s “march of the makers” then these figures are truly atrocious and go a long way to explaining why it is we were not a major player in any of the energy technology sectors even before the Treasury instructed Amber Rudd to kill off the renewables installation industry.

Inevitably, the lack of Westminster interest in any technologies other than those it might support will have an impact on which science topics our university researchers will want to work on. Pointless really spending a few years working on novel energy technologies if your government is intent on doing a deal with the Chinese and French to build lots of new nuclear reactors so its chums in the City can benefit from Chinese currency trading deals.

Think I’m joking? I’m not. It’s obvious that currency trading agreement is part of the overall deal because it will make zillions for the City.

So why would a researcher or indeed a company now spend time and money on solar, wind or biomass research?

The energy sources government approves of are very clear although of course there should still be room for transport fuels and other technologies not associated directly with generation.

In order to make their preferences even more plain the UK Government has agreed with the Chinese to jointly fund a nuclear energy R&D centre in the UK to the tune of £50million.

What baffles me is that if Westminster is so keen on nuclear why aren’t they backing the Stable Salt Reactor project proposed by Moltex Energy?

This design was the leading contender in a review of small reactor concepts funded in 2014 by what was called the Technology Strategy Board but is now known as “Innovate UK”.

Silly question I suppose because the answer is that it just wouldn’t take the risk although that’s exactly what governments should do and indeed used to do . . . like our American cousins.

The US still does of course. It is funding work on small scale reactors and has just announced that its Department of Energy is providing $52million in new funding to “universities, corporations and national laboratories” to investigate ways to reduce the cost of solar energy, and a further $50million for solar photovoltaic technology research and development.

I can just see all those UK solar energy researchers, fed-up with the attitude here, digging out their passports and looking for the cheap flights across the Atlantic and who would blame them if they did?

One look at some of the work going on at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and elsewhere is surely enough incentive to make such a move.

MIT is – among many other things – working on the use of graphene to strengthen and improve the performance of solar cells. MIT researchers have also developed a novel kind of graphene based catalyst that could replace rare metals that are currently used in fuel cells.

A reminder here: UK scientists actually discovered graphene.

At the University of California, researchers have been adapting photosynthesis, where water and carbon dioxide are turned into sugar – organic fuel – by plants and using synthetic photosynthesis techniques found they can create a range of different products including methane which they can then convert to fuels.

This CO

2

recycling is a potential alternative to CO
2

sequestration. It would add value to the CO
2

rather than simply adding costs to the consumer’s quarterly bill which is what the UK Government’s programme is intended to do, if it ever happens.

Point is that, in the US and elsewhere there is a lot of what we used to call “blue sky” research going on. Researchers are trying new stuff, thinking up new ideas and performing real experiments.

Here we tend towards more applied research which means real science is stifled. That’s wrong. There should be a balance.

So what to do?

Firstly, it’s pointless expecting the UK Government to do anything other than carry on freezing the science budget which it’s been doing since at least 2010 so it’s the Scottish Government that needs to take on the mantle of sorting the problem out.

This means Holyrood needs to develop a proper energy research strategy that defines the direction of travel and this will help and encourage the science community to formulate its own aims. It also needs to ensure there is cooperation across the universities and minimal duplication of effort.

To achieve that it needs to create a virtual National Energy Technology Institute and not an oil & gas technology institute as Aberdeen City Council is proposing. That’s anchoring Scotland in the past and not preparing it for the future.

As to funding I’ll leave that to the Scottish Government to sort out but there seems to be some funding already available which are being fed to organisations such as the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre and Wave Energy Scotland, which could and should end up being part of the new National Energy Technology Institute. Not bits and pieces.

Holyrood needs to produce an agreed agenda on energy research and development which suits not just our domestic needs but also our industrial aspirations.

It’s not difficult. Others do it. So let’s get on with it and turn our universities into the cradles of invention and inspiration they should be.

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