Energy is the key to the future

If we had an unlimited source of deployable and sustainable energy at our disposal, many of the things we consider science fiction could actually be science fact. But while we wait for technological development to catch up with our imaginations, the best course of action to secure a sustainable future is to maximize energy efficiency. Professor Nina F. Thornhill of Imperial College London, UK is helping train the engineers of tomorrow to address the needs of heavy industry in terms of increasing both the degree of automation and energy efficiency of their processes.

Unlimited clean energy for the future

Professor Thornhill is a self-admitted fan of both science and science fiction. “I was brought up on science fiction. The great thing about science fiction is that it has shown us that energy is absolutely crucial for the future of mankind. With unlimited energy we could pretty much solve all of the world’s problems, support a growing population and pretty much do whatever we want, provided that the energy we use doesn’t pollute the planet… whatever planet it may be.” While those visions of the future are not yet a reality, major steps in the right direction have been taken. The developments in renewable energy provide hope for the future. Also, with private investments pouring in to drive the development of nuclear fusion, there may be a new clean and plentiful nuclear source of energy available in the not-so-distant future.

Fictional visions of the future are not yet reality, but major steps in the right direction have been taken.

Storage and distribution challenges

“But even if we discover a source of unlimited energy, that energy has to be deployable. This means overcoming the challenges in storage, recovery and distribution,” Professor Thornhill reminds us. For electric energy especially, finding solutions for buffering and storage is already a quest for today. The answer will most likely lie in the development of large-scale batteries and solving the challenges of distributed storage, utilizing the grid itself. “To some degree this is already becoming a reality, for example when it comes to charging stations for electric vehicles. Cost-effective charging takes place during hours of lower electricity demand, and it is already also possible put some energy back into the grid during peak hours.”

Green energy is not just green electricity

Professor Thornhill also reminds us that when we talk about energy, we are not just talking about electricity. Sustainability should be a focus when discussing today’s fuel and gas sources. Luckily, many advances have already been made when it comes to finding alternatives for fossil fuels. Professor Thornhill is optimistic about things such as heat pumps, and carbon-neutral blue and green hydrogen. “The ability to make green hydrogen out of clean water through electrolysis has exciting implications for the future.” She looks forward to the day that all of the UK has been able to change out their traditional gas boilers for more efficient and sustainable solutions thanks to scientific and technological development and new innovations.

Energy efficiency is today’s solution

But since we do not have an unlimited source of clean energy at our disposal yet, the challenge we face today is to find ways to improve the efficiency of how we consume what we have. While all of us can do our part in improving energy efficiency in our everyday lives, the real difference can be made in industry. Professor Thornhill believes that the real game-changer in energy efficiency is variable speed drives technology. Smooth adjustability in motor speeds has the potential to deliver massive improvements in energy efficiency with variable speed drives. Leading technology providers such as ABB are bringing out features and functionalities that help reduce energy consumption. Professor Thornhill mentions features such as ride-through functionalities that allow processes to drive through disturbances, as the type of innovations that help improve energy efficiency and environmental performance. “By maintaining a process and avoiding an unscheduled shutdown by using stored rotational energy as auxiliary energy in a gas pumping application for example, we can minimize emissions from a standstill and avoid having to rely on flaring to release pipeline pressure.”

The real game-changer in energy efficiency is variable speed drives technology.

Industry needs innovators

Nina Thornhill, Professor of Process Automation at Imperial College London stresses the importance of co-operation between the academic world and industry in overcoming todays challenges together. It is a long path for a researcher to see their idea become a part of a product, but that is always the ultimate goal. She makes sure that all postgraduate students working on their PhD with her spend some time with an industry partner. In many cases, based on her long-standing fruitful relationship with the company, that partner has been ABB. “That’s how the students begin to understand the real-world industrial problems they are solving, and their real-world relevance. Our shared mindset is that we are interested in solving real problems. It is those problems that inspire us to do new theory and develop new methods.” For us to make science fiction science fact, we need curious minds, analytical thinkers, practical doers and true innovators.

We are interested solving real-world problems.

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