Energy materials – meeting the challenge

Materials World magazine
1 May 2008

The UK has a long and recognised history in materials engineering for the energy sector. While markets have changed considerably over the last 30 years and much of the UK-based supply chain has been lost or has refocused its activities, we have retained many aspects of a high added-value industry and academic skills-base. This provides a foundation on which to build, develop new markets and tackle the technical challenges that lie ahead.

Market research

Markets and business opportunities are often created and driven by legislation and Government policy. There is no better example of this than in the energy sector. Commitments to meet targets on CO2 emissions, security of supply and the cost of electricity are creating both opportunities and challenges. This, in turn, is causing organisations within the materials supply chain to revisit the sector as a major market opportunity.

Recent announcements by Government are particularly pertinent. These include – the green light for new nuclear power plants, the commitment to meet EU 2020 renewables targets, and the construction of the UK’s first commercial scale carbon capture and storage demonstrator.

These decisions provide opportunities, but also have implications for the UK materials sector. The ability to supply, construct and demonstrate the above technologies will only be achieved if suitable materials, their associated supply chains, technologies, skills and resources are available.

To meet the targets of new builds in the UK supplying up to 35GW over the next two decades, many of the raw materials, components and power plant will still be imported, but the UK can play a role as a supplier to its own market and the growing global market, worth billions of pounds (where electricity demand will almost double over the next 25 years, from around 15,000TWh in 2004 to 30,000TWh in 2030). However, it needs to take action now.

Positive news is already emanating with the announcement in April that Sheffield Forgemasters International Ltd, UK, is planning to seek financing for a 15,000t press that could start producing ultra-large forgings within three years. The main driver for this is the global growth in new nuclear power plant requiring ultra-large forgings. If this major investment goes ahead it will enable the UK to capture a significant proportion of the large forgings market for both the nuclear and fossil energy sector, breaking into markets currently monopolised by Japan.

Both in the short and long term, similar opportunities are presenting themselves on different scales in electricity generating technologies such as carbon capture and storage, offshore wind, marine, fuel cells and photovoltaics. These are all areas in which the UK has recognised strengths, from fundamental R&D to design and manufacture. However, major investments will be required to take full advantage and develop sustainable supply chains.

Underpinning R&D strategy

Bringing these high added-value commercial opportunities to fruition requires an underpinning R&D strategy, that will allow the UK to develop technologies that can support business going forward.

The Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) for Energy Materials has defined a pathway to deliver:

  • Materials solutions that will help meet the Government’s targets in the Energy White paper relating to climate change, security of supply and cost of electricity.
  • Wealth creation in the UK through new business, increased investment and employment.

As the first step, the Energy Materials Working Group, of Materials UK has delivered the SRA and a series of technology reports with a set of recommendations that identify the R&D requirements and opportunities in the areas of fossil-fuelled power plant, nuclear power plant, alternative energy generation (renewables), and transmission, distribution and storage systems.

In addition, in May, the Working Group is publishing a report, The UK Energy Materials Supply Chain, which maps UK capacity and capabilities, identifying gaps and opportunities and how they should be addressed and exploited in the future. With the support of Government departments, funding agencies and the materials community.

The SRA will be a working document that will advise the public sector of supply chain issues, the areas in which materials R&D funds should be invested, and to inform the private sector of the potential opportunities that materials technology can offer businesses.

The SRA categorises, under three technology related areas, where materials R&D can make a significant impact within the energy sector, and where the UK has both the strength and balance of industrial and academic expertise to address the issues. These are:

  • Reducing time to market and lifecycle costs – significant shortening of materials development and validation lifecycle time for quicker entry to market (for example, new alloy development and deployment for fossil plant). Significant cost reduction, including material substitution, will increase competitiveness to give the UK a market lead, in areas such as solar photovoltaic and fuel cells.
  • Higher performance in harsher environments – development of high integrity materials systems that operate in increasingly aggressive conditions (temperature, stress and environment). This is particularly relevant for emerging technologies such as wind, wave, tidal, carbon capture, biomass, energy transmission, distribution and storage, and also for conventional fossil and nuclear materials.
  • Improved life management and reliability – improved predictability and modelling of materials behaviour will produce significant savings on unforeseen plant outages and maintenance costs. This includes understanding the degradation of materials in service, their inspection and repair. It also covers the development of materials with improved reliability and properties, and increased service lifetimes, which will ultimately reduce the cost of electricity.

In all of the above, considering the integration of materials with design and manufacturability is essential.

Delivery plan

To have any impact, the SRA must be implemented. A delivery plan has been put in place with a number of over-riding objectives. Firstly, a wide dissemination of the findings to the academic and industrial materials communities, stakeholders and relevant funding agencies is essential.

Secondly, a coordination and delivery body must be established, comprising key stakeholders from industry, academia and funding agencies from both public and private sector. Operating through Materials UK, it will have a clear remit to promote and implement the SRA, ensure initiation of the R&D programmes and advise funding agencies. It will own the SRA and be responsible for its updating to take account of changes in energy policy and legislation.

Stable and sustainable long-term funding mechanisms must be put in place for cradle-to-grave materials R&D. The delivery body will work with both public and private sector funding agencies to develop and secure this.

Meanwhile, an energy materials knowledge management system will ensure the mass of expertise and data already existing within the UK (particularly in nuclear and fossil energy) is not lost. This will guarantee maximum benefit is obtained from both existing knowledge and from that generated in future R&D.

The materials challenges posed by the drive for low emissions, high reliability and low cost are not unique to the energy sector. The materials community must look for innovative ways to work across both disciplines and sectors to find novel ways of finding solutions and transferring technologies.

The resources in the UK cannot solve all of the energy materials challenges by itself. Where appropriate, we should develop international relationships to improve UK prosperity. An international node of the Materials KTN should be formed, looking across all materials to represent, influence and align the content of international programmes where the UK has a vested interest.

The energy sector needs to attract high-class individuals to add to the existing skills base. The proposed R&D should be linked to skills-base refreshment to develop and retain expertise and knowledge. This will be executed in conjunction with the Materials UK Education & Skills Working Group.

Implementation phase

The SRA is now entering its implementation phase, which will support the UK in becoming a global leader in tackling climate change and providing secure, clean and affordable energy, and re-create a high added value industry with the associated skills and resources to make the UK world leaders in clean energy materials technologies.

The Energy Materials Working Group has already made significant progress in implementing the recommendations of the SRA. Towards the end of 2007, it worked closely with the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, the EPSRC and the European Commission to promote the importance of energy materials both to the UK and Europe. This resulted in calls for collaborative R&D proposals in the area of energy materials in both the UK and within the Framework 7 programme in excess of £20m. A large number of UK organisations have been involved in these calls.

We look forward to making continued progress in delivering all of our objectives.


Further information:

Materials UK