Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Posts By: Leighton Holyfield

Fuelling the future at the world’s 3rd largest automaker

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📥  Internships & visits

As a brilliant way to get some industrial experience under my belt, shatter my second year blues and to see more of the world, I secured an internship within the research arm of General Motors, one of the great American engineering companies, who in January 2016 were announced as the world’s third largest automaker. I was lucky enough to be put in contact with Dr Anne Dailly, an experienced researcher in the field of energy storage materials, who was immensely helpful in setting up and performing the internship. Shortly after securing my place in the organisation and getting an exchange visa from the U.S. government, I arrived in Warren, MI (just outside of Detroit) in June 2016 eager to kick off my internship.

A Chevrolet Colorado turns statue on the South-West corner of the GM Technical Center campus in Warren, MI

A Chevrolet Colorado turns statue on the South-West corner of the GM Technical Center campus in Warren, MI

I was based on GM’s Technical Centre campus in Warren, a large area of land owned by the company that houses many of its design and research employees. I was working in a relatively modest building on the north end of the campus, but some structures there, such as the vehicle engineering centre, were huge structures housing as many as 10,000 design engineers! The physical size of the land was also imposing, taking 10 minutes to cycle from one end to the other, but served as an excellent illustration of the resource available to the company, and I was excited to learn how that would manifest in the research lab environment.

The Research and Development Chemical Engineering Lab (RCEL), where all the magic happened.

The Research and Development Chemical Engineering Lab (RCEL), where all the magic happened.

I was primarily working with Dr Dailly, looking at boosting the energy content of natural gas fuel storage systems. This was an interesting experience, as we were testing non-conventional equipment for this process, and my role was to try and determine whether a) this experimental protocol was valid and b) what the benefits were. The experiments took a long time to complete and I unfortunately had to return home early, so we weren’t able to complete what we had set out to do, but I still had a very worthwhile experience of life in an industrial research setting, and how the challenges of that environment could be very different to those of university-based research.

I also had the pleasure of attending a couple of meetings to listen to what kind of research was being done by the wider research team at GM. While this information is commercially confidential (and therefore cannot be discussed here), there were some fascinating presentations dealing with a wide range of issues, ranging from fundamental exploratory science to dealing with problems reported by GM customers.

Chevrolet Corvettes new and old on display at the Technical Center

Chevrolet Corvettes new and old on display at the Technical Center

Whilst I was staying in Warren, which is largely a suburban city without a huge number of touristy-type attractions (at least within walking/cycling reach), I did have the opportunity to go into Detroit itself on a couple of occasions. The city has a bad reputation based on the economic struggles of the area and the levels of crime in the inner suburbs, but downtown Detroit is actually a bustling metropolis with lots going on, and I felt it was as safe as any other American downtown. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a concert on the waterfront (next to the Detroit river, and with Canada just across the water!) and to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game, which was really exciting. I had a great time in Detroit, and would definitely suggest that you shake off the stereotypes and visit the downtown.

All in all, I had a great experience working with GM, one that I was very grateful to both Dr Dailly and the team at GM for making happen and to the CSCT for the generous funding. I met and worked with some great people in a new environment, learnt about the benefits and challenges of industrial research, and came back to Bath refreshed and motivated heading into the final year of my PhD.

Leighton is in the 2013 Cohort of the CSCT and is now in the final year of his PhD: "Design of Safe Hybrid Hydrogen Storage Tanks" with Professor Tim Mays and Dr Andrew Burrows.


Why Nuclear, Why Now?

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📥  Comment

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks to workers at Hinkley Point B, close to the site of the proposed new nuclear plant.Crown Copyright (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Energy. Our modern life, as we know it, depends on it. And it’s never more on the mind of the modern consumer as it is during autumn, when the weather gets colder and nights get longer. This also happens to be the time of year when the ‘Big Six’ energy companies all announce their price change for the year, and the news is predictably grim.

SSE kicked things off with an 8.2% rise on 2012, British gas announcing a 9.2% rise, and now Npower have announced an eye-watering 10.4% rise in their tariffs from a year ago . A blow to consumers it is indeed.

But why the rises? According to Npower COO Paul Massara, the reasons are threefold: Government schemes (31% more tax); rising distribution costs (10% rise); and wholesale energy prices (3% rise). Not exactly reassuring for the ever-tightening purse strings, particularly if you’re now one of the 4.5 million people in the UK living in ‘fuel poverty’. Still, you could live in Sweden, where the average tariff for a kilo-Watt-hour (kWh) of natural gas is €0.11523 per kWh, a whole 2.6 times the UK cost, as of May this year.

Even so, the idea of the UK government announcing a plan to give a French energy producer a guaranteed energy price must sound sickening.

Nuclear Announcement

Yet the plan for more nuclear power does just that, as the announcement has been made this week of the economic terms for a new nuclear reactor that will be built at Hinkley in Somerset. Hinkley Point C, as it is referred to, will be on an adjacent site to Hinkley’s two currently operating reactors, and is claimed to be able to produce the same amount of energy as ’30,000 onshore wind farms’, although EDF haven’t made a claim to the actual capacity of the plant yet.

But why, you ask? Surely this is Britain giving up foreign money to the French (and to the Chinese, who will own a 30-40% stake in the plant), just so that we can pay more for our electricity and create lots of environment-destroying nuclear waste while we’re at it?

Not quite. Let’s look at the money numbers first. EDF say the construction of Hinkley Point C will cost £14 billion, which is a lot of money by anyone’s standards. It’s also claimed that the construction of the plant could create as many as 25,000 jobs during construction, and 900 long-term operating jobs. So seeing as job creation has been the government’s number one goal since coming to power, it ticks that box.

In return for this, EDF will receive £92.50 for every Mega-Watt-hour (MWh) they produce over a 35 year period, which could fall to £89.50 per MWh if EDF follow through on a plan to build another reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk.

Compare this to the government’s own estimates that a nuclear plant commissioned in 2013 has a total levelised cost* of £72-93 per MWh. Whilst the initial price paid seems high, further reflection shows that this would seem to be a pretty fair price. It must also be pointed out that the price for the electricity that’s provided is fixed, so although the government ensures that EDF receives their £92.50 per MWh, it will reap back any money EDF receives above the quoted tariff, which could help to reduce energy costs for consumers in the future.

There’s also the question of the timescale of the project. Even if this project is signed off in early 2014 as expected, then we’ll still wait a good 15-20 years whilst the plant is built and commissioned (nuclear plants are notoriously long building projects, because of the safety concerns involved). By that point, the energy sector could look very different to what it is today, especially if oil and gas prices trend in the upward manner that they are expected to. In addition, there is the question of inflation, which will naturally reduce the value of the tariff being paid by the time Hinkley C’s electricity comes onto the grid.

Engineering for the Environment, or in Spite of it?

So why nuclear over renewables? Surely investing all this money into wind, solar tidal etc. would be better than this environmentally damaging rubbish? The rap sheet against nuclear power is long: radioactive waste that stays radioactive for millions of years; the potential for catastrophic accidents such as those seen at Chernobyl or, more recently, at Fukushima; and the fact that uranium ore is non-renewable. All of these questions are valid reasons not to use nuclear. In fact, the entire German nation used these motivators as a decision to rid themselves of nuclear energy by 2022.

However, they have been largely overblown in the popular media, as have the pros for nuclear power: a 1 GW nuclear reactor will produce 30 tonnes a year of waste, whilst a similarly sized coal plant will produce 300,000 tonnes of ash (although ash doesn’t have to be buried for hundreds of thousands of years, that’s still a huge amount of pretty useless waste). Furthermore the incident rate in the nuclear industry per unit of energy generated is the lowest of any major energy generation industry (Markandya & Wilkinson, 2007) and on top of that uranium ore is expected to last more than a century, even with a major growth in its usage (Jewell 2011).

The nuclear decision is largely a question of trust. Nuclear is already a very dependable technology with relatively low operating costs for a low carbon technology (even the best localised costs for wind projects started in 2012 range between £76-111 per MWh, and solar clocks in at an eye watering £145-203 per MWh).

The ability of nuclear power to be a reliable base load type of power generator is also an important factor, considering the UK is rapidly approaching an energy gap and the threat of blackouts increases and unfortunately renewable energy requires energy storage systems in order to provide the same level of supply dependability. As people tend not to be very happy when the lights go out unexpectedly, nuclear is the most reliable low-carbon alternative to fill said gap.

A clean, carbon-free renewable future is the dream of many, including many of us here at the CSCT. However, until then, it appears nuclear energy is part of the UK’s energy future, whether we like it or not.

*Levelised cost is the entire cost of the project, from commissioning and construction to waste disposal and decommissioning, divided by the amount of energy the plant is believed to produce over its lifetime. See this report for more information.

Journal References

Jewell, J. (2009) Ready for Nuclear Energy?: An assessment of capacities and motivations for launching new national nuclear power programs, Energy Policy, 39(3), pp. 1041-1055. Available through Science Direct (restricted access)

Markandya, A. & Wilkinson, P. (2007) Electricity Generation and Health, The Lancet, 370(9591), pp.979-990. Publicy available