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Key facts

  • We've contributed to X policy change
  • £X has been saved and reinvested
  • We've solved X problem on a global scale

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The problem

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The research and findings

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The impact

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“This research is amazing because it's helped achieve X.”

Name of academic

Name of academic

Professor of X

Name of Research Centre if applicable


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Further information

  • Other research by this person (link)
  • Other research in this area (link)
  • External source of information (link)

Podcast transcript

Welcome to the Research Beacons’ podcast, a series of illuminating conversations that shine a light on research at Manchester and our innovative solutions to global challenges. Our Research Beacons podcast series highlights how researchers at The University of Manchester are finding solutions to global challenges across five key areas: Advanced Materials, Cancer, Energy, Global Inequalities and Industrial Biotechnology, our key research beacons.

In our ‘Spotlights On’ energy podcast we’ll be shining a light on energy research at Manchester and the global challenge of keeping the lights on. Over the next three episodes we will be joined by experts from across the University to hear how their work is helping to keep electricity flowing or trying to curb climate emissions and minimise the impacts of climate change.

There's been a transition away from coal-fired power in the UK over the last five years, following a drive to slash carbon emissions. Our energy remains dominated by North Sea oil and gas, but as we move to a low-carbon economy and with access to energy supply being used by some countries as a political tool, we've been increasing generating capacity from renewable sources. Indeed, on some days, for instance, when it's been particularly blowy, we've seen stretches of time where we've not needed any coal from the grid at all, something not seen since before the Industrial Revolution.

Nuclear power also currently provides twenty percent of our generating capacity, but our old reactors are nearing the end of their operating lives. To avoid energy shortfalls, our focus needs to be on investment in supplies that are secure, diverse, affordable and low carbon, such as renewable generation, nuclear power, coal fire generation with carbon capture and storage, pipelines to import gas from Norway and Continental Europe and terminals for imported liquid natural gas, and further gas storage.

This needs to be coupled with infrastructure improvements including major new electricity lines and a smart grid and energy efficiency programs. We will be investigating some of these areas in this podcast mini-series.

Today, we're looking at nuclear and bioenergy as clean sources of energy generation. I'm pleased to welcome Professor Abbie Jones and Dr. Andrew Welfle to discuss their research and what it means for the future supply of energy.

<Vicky> So Abbie, over to you. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

<Abbie> Hello Vicky, I'm a professor in nuclear graphite engineering and I'm based within the School of Engineering, here at The University of Manchester. My research group is principally focused around nuclear graphite, which is contained within the core of an AGR - advanced gas-cooled reactor and what we principally do, is look at the safety and aging aspects of the nuclear graphite materials and try to predict its behaviour. To better understand safety and to better provide confidence to the office of nuclear regulation. So, within the School of Engineering we have a unique set of a graphite laboratories, so that we can work on real radioactive samples. Half the group equally are computationally very heavy. So, they build large models and try to computationally examine the behaviour of the real reactors and then we get to go into the Laboratories and test that on real samples.

<Vicky> Fantastic, that's grand. How did you get interested in this specific area of research?

<Abbie> Well, I've always been interested in energy and safety really. I did my PhD around carbon science, around the diamond community actually and then I went from diamond, which is a very nice, well-ordered state of carbon, to a very disordered graphite material and started working in the nuclear graphite sector and then I realised, that a lot of my research skills were directly applicable and that I could really throw my heart and soul into it.

<Vicky> Were you motivated to make that move by anything you might have seen in the news? Or was there something that kind of made an impact on you personally? How did you go from the sparkly world of diamonds to the more interesting world of nuclear?

<Abbie> (Laughter) Well. It's really around electricity and electrical safety and trying to do research, that has a real-life impact and has got real application. So, I wanted to get more involved in something that wasn't so fundamentally science, and that could be just as applicable in the modern world.

<Vicky> Great. I will go a little bit more into, kind of how that research has been applied in a moment. Andrew if you could answer the same questions. If you could tell us who you are and what you do, that would be great?

<Andrew> Thank you. I'm Andrew Welfle and I'm a research fellow at The University of Manchester and I'm based in a group called the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. My work very much revolves around bioenergy. So that's working in anything to do with bioenergy. That being a renewable energy technology. So basically, how can that technology be used more so in the future, to meet our climate change commitments and to generate renewable energy and to stimulate sustainable development. So, basically, the work I do is everything.

<Vicky> Very important and you mentioned the Tyndall Centre and the climate change research where you work. Is there anything you want to tell us about specifically your area?

<Andrew> It’s a really interesting place to work, the Tyndall Centre. So basically, we are sitting in the School of Engineering, but in our department the Tyndall Centre, there's not many Engineers. We're quite unique, in that we have people who are engineers or physicists to social scientists, geographers and we all kind of work with a fellow mission, to work on climate change research. So, we kind of accompany and work alongside engineers to basically develop the solutions for energy and sustainability, so it's quite a unique place to work.

<Vicky> A great example of lots of different disciplines coming together towards a common goal for a greater good. Then what interested you in your area of research?

<Andrew> I went on a bit of a journey. I started off many years ago and did a geography undergraduate degree. I was very much interested in the earth, environment, land systems - environment essentially - and I got interested in climate change and sustainability through that. Then my first few jobs were with engineering companies. So I went on a bit of a journey towards the engineering world and when it came to deciding what I want to do for a PhD, bioenergy kind of sits between those, so I kind of felt at home. It was very much bioenergy, analysing natural systems lands, forests or whatever it maybe and it's also got that engineering slant, as in the technologies to create the energy at the end.

<Vicky> Fantastic. Was there anything that kind of inspired you, kind of in the greater world, to go into this, like in the news or anything personally that made you think?

<Andrew> Well, obviously, looming over us all in media is climate change, it's there all the time. So, I work heavily in that field. But renewable energy is something that interests me, and I just see the work I do with bioenergy as such a flexible and unique technology. You can take any organic material basically and produced energy from it, using all sorts of fancy chemical engineering processes. So, it's a quite interesting.

<Vicky> Fascinating and there's lots of different people working in lots of different areas and obviously you’re linked in with that. Which is great. So, we’ve talked about two different aspects of energy generation for the UK and the world. I guess here in the UK we don't really think about electricity that much. We tend to take it for granted. The fact that it's kind of on tap, there's constant supply there. Should we be worried that a constant reliable energy supply might not always be the case?

<Abbie> Yes absolutely. Well from my perspective definitely so. We’re at a point with the nuclear reactors within the UK, that are providing 20% of our electricity, are really coming towards their end of their life and over the next 10 years, will progressively see that decline from 20% down to zero and we'll just end up with more and more reliance on gas. Which is not the way we want to be going.

<Andrew> I think we've been really spoilt in this country, as in fossil fuels provide such an amazing technology; so flexible, its energy is there when you need it. There’s lots of energy there, but the problem is the emissions and climate change. We need to ween our self, off those fossil fuels. So, we have been a bit spoilt, in terms of those energies always being there. The challenge and interest in our research field is very much, ‘how can we meet that challenge of renewable technologies and bring a mix of technologies, and balance those demands with the different technologies?’, that I think can tackle fossil fuels.

<Vicky> Do you think the general public have a perception that energy is constantly on tap? Do you think they're worried or complacent?

<Andrew> I think in this country, like many countries in Europe, for example, we don't have the same perception as maybe other parts of the world. Energy is always there; we don't have many power cuts. Previously we haven't really thought about where the energy comes from. I think that's changing slightly because of the news agenda. People are starting to think about coal, natural gas and shale gas has been quite prominent. So yeah, it's something that people are starting to think about.

<Vicky> How, is your research very specifically addressing this challenge of keeping our lights on?

<Abbie> Well, we're addressing the problem of continued safe operation. I mentioned earlier that our reactors are aging and so we need as many combined heads as possible. So that we can understand its behaviour going forward and we've got the safest and most reliable supply and confidence in nuclear technology.

<Vicky> So, I guess we need to plug that gap as you say, for the reactors that are going to be decommissioned. Nothing is replacing that 20%, unless we rely on fossil fuels. So, it's how can we make them last?

<Abbie> Making them last as long as possible and plug that gap to be able to get new low-carbon technologies for the future, with renewables, by investing in next generation nuclear reactors. So that we've got something to give us a constant supply and be hand-in-hand with renewables and with other low carbon suppliers out there. That can really give us a safe and secure supply to the UK.

<Vicky> Great. That kind of leads into your renewable research and how that's being addressed?

<Andrew> Yeah so we basically do lots of work with policymakers, because the looming target at the minute, is that the UK's decided to go carbon neutral by 2050 and that's harder than you think it's going to be. So, lots of policy makers are running around like headless chickens at the moment. Behind the scenes working at how to get there. They’re talking to a lot of academics and people such as the group I'm involved with, to work out how my technology or other peoples can try and fill that gap. So, working in bioenergy is quite interesting because it can provide heat, it can provide power, transport fuels. It's quite a flexible option and we're working at how bioenergy can contribute the most to each of those.

<Vicky> What's your food source, what's the food stock for your specific area of bioenergy.

<Andrew> My research particularly focuses on resource. So how much resource do we have? What and where is it? How do we mobilise it? How do we make the most of it? So that's everything from the stuff you put in the bin after having food. Restaurants and any industry that produces waste which is organic; that's a resource. There's also the stuff that people commonly associate with bioenergy forests, wood pellets, wood chips. Hopefully, that’s sustainable. You have agriculture straws animal waste basically anything organic is a potential feedstock for bioenergy process. So, my job is very much looking at what's available, how best to use it and what kind of energy can we generate from it?

<Vicky> So, you’re kind of tackling two challenges, because you’re helping with the waste issue, which is another big area in sustainability and the circular economy.

<Andrew> Yes, lots of lots of work we do is around waste. How can we develop waste management strategies? Where bio energy can be generated from our waste? And at the same time mitigating emissions that maybe generated from waste that goes on to landfill. Likewise, how can bioenergy be linked to the agricultural sector and use resources that may otherwise decay or rot in the fields and produce methane. So basically, bioenergy can kind of accompany work along with other sectors, to provide energy and to also reduce emissions along the way.

<Vicky> Fantastic stuff. Your research obviously has massive benefit for the society. Is there anything you both might want to add about the kind of impact and benefit this research has specifically had?

<Abbie> Well, I think we're both hand-in-hand in trying to reduce carbon content and then CO2 emissions from a nuclear perspective. Just helping to keep the lights on without nuclear reactors has helped to save forty-two million tons of CO2 over the last five years, just from continued operation of the AGR's – Advanced Gas Cooled reactors.

<Vicky> Wow. An impressive figure.

<Andrew> Likewise, we work with policymakers themselves, but we also work with organizations that try and push policymakers, for example. We recently worked with the Committee for Climate Change. So, we work on reports which are basically sent to government to advise them how the UK could grow its bioeconomy. So, we were kind of advising and saying why aren't we doing this, why aren’t we doing that. Our research in Manchester shows that essentially if the UK did push the boat out, we could generate vast quantities of energy at home from our biomass resources, if we so wanted to. So, a lot of our work is poking politicians and policymakers to make the decisions to up their game when on renewables.

<Vicky> I guess also within both of these industries, there are jobs created as well?

<Abbie> Yes, well typically the nuclear sector provides around 10,000 jobs across the UK. Around two thousand jobs per station and a further two to 300 jobs in the local community. So, it's very beneficial.

<Vicky> There’s an economic, societal, environmental impact of the important work that you're both involved in?

<Andrew> Yeah, I think it's important that academics and specialist in our area talk to politicians in the language they want to hear. They want to know about jobs. So, if we talk about for example the recent election that took place, lots of talk was about our forestation and planting trees. That's a big opportunity for bioenergy based on sustainability, but also that's going to make lots of jobs. So, if we can talk in the language of the politicians, there is no reason why we can't meet everyone's gains.

<Vicky> So, what's the legacy of your research and is there anything that we can do now, that we didn't know about before the research took place? What can we look to do in the future?

<Abbie> So, our modelling capability that we've developed at Manchester, really has helped us understand the radiation behaviour of the current nuclear reactors to a much longer lifetime than we ever thought we could. Going forward, we can really help to address some of the fundamental kind of areas that are lacking in knowledge for next generation reactors, because we've developed a good understanding of our current stations.

<Andrew> Likewise, if you probably don't know at home, bioenergy is the number one renewable energy source in the UK in terms of generation from renewables. Much of that is currently power, so a lot of our work has been involved around ‘where is the resource coming from to power these power stations?’ So, we've done lots of stuff around sustainability and that has filtered through into policy and legislation. That has required that resources, particularly importantly from elsewhere, meet certain sustainability standards. So that's a strong legacy, that hopefully we’ve built on but as you move away from power and other technologies such as PV or wind turbines take over, there’s opportunities for bio energies and heat and transport fuels particularly. So hopefully we'll continue that legacy and make renewable sustainable energy.

<Vicky> What, challenges, still remain? What's next? What do you want to tackle in five years going forward?

<Abbie> How, can we make systems more efficient? So, we can generate process heat and we've always got this constant supply, whichever technology it is. We want to get to a really efficient system where we're not having any waste lost. And that we can then start to use batteries when they come online to store the heat, until that we've got a supply of electricity going forward.

<Andrew> Going back again, about climate change. The net zero target is going to be the main thing that everyone's going to be working on in the sector, to a certain extent in the next few years. We're very good in this country of creating pathways or trajectory of how to get there. So, a lot of much of our work will hopefully be focusing on getting these ideas off the ground. These calculations off our papers into reality.

<Vicky> Yeah, I think it’s, great the work that the Tyndall Centre have done setting the carbon trajectories for city regions and Greater Manchester.

<Andrew> Yeah, so we're very good at telling people how to get there. The hard bit is them getting there, them implementing the plan. So, I think much of the future work will be focused on that.

<Vicky> So hopefully when we've got our a crystal ball or we kind of time travel into the future and look back, we can see all these great things that have that have been achieved, fingers crossed, and I guess instrumental to enabling what our policy makers and politicians are doing today to enable a better future. So, if you had 10 minutes with one of our current cabinet ministers involved in one of these areas; what sort of things would you be telling them? What would your asks be in relation to this topic?

<Abbie> Well I would ask them why aren’t we now investing in low-carbon and very safe reliable nuclear systems, hand in hand with renewables that will last us 60 to 70 years into the future? Why are we really not putting that investment into the next generation reactors and why are we just lagging behind and relying on gas?

<Andrew> Likewise, I mentioned much my work revolves around identifying opportunities from different resources that we could produce energy from. Which we're not doing currently and that includes identifying land on which we could grow crops for various types of energy. Going forward I'd say to a politician, we have a unique opportunity whether you like it or not from leaving the EU. The common agricultural policy, we can reform that, why not reform it in a way that benefits things such as energy in addition to food.

<Abby> Leads to security in the UK.

<Andrew> Yeah definitely.

<Vicky> Absolutely. Solves the energy trilemma and the current challenge. Fantastic. Well it's been a pleasure to chat to you both and find out more information. We’ll also be able to post some links to the relevant research and papers that you’re both involved in, if people are interested in finding out more about these interesting areas and very important research.

Listen to our next energy podcast to find out more about how the grid is burning up to growth and demand at dramatically different mix of sources of generation from when it was put in place over six decades ago and whether it can cope with increasing extreme weather events. To hear more about our research in advanced materials, cancer, energy, global inequalities and Industrial biotechnology go to manchester.ac.uk.