Power supply — the mapping of UK materials supply chains for the power sector

Materials World magazine
1 May 2008

The need to replace existing plants with new facilities based on low-carbon sources means there will be significant pressure on power plant construction and global supply chains. Combined with the requirements for new technologies, this will have serious implications for materials supply. There will be a rapid increase in consumption of existing materials, accompanied by demands for more advanced materials and technologies. The UK will therefore need to place more emphasis and investment on both the supply chain and materials R&D in this area.

A major review, commissioned by the Energy Materials Working Group of Materials UK, has been carried out with the aim of mapping markets, issues and opportunities within the materials supply chains for fossil, nuclear and renewable power generation.

Few major power stations have been built over the last 20 years in the UK, yet the industry is once again offering considerable opportunities for the supporting materials sector. The UK has retained a strong capability in design and manufacture of power equipment, as well as a balance of plant for nuclear, fossil fuel and most forms of renewable power generation.

A number of major energy companies and materials suppliers retain either headquarters, manufacturing bases or R&D facilities within the UK. The country’s power equipment and services sector has a turnover of £30bln, employs 300,000 people and its exports of equipment average £1.9bln annually – inclusion of power related services would double that figure. In addition, there are hundreds of smaller companies active in the sector, particularly in emerging energy technologies such as offshore wind, wave/tidal, fuel cells and solar photovoltaics.

Traditional power generation

Although the supply chains for materials used in the manufacture of power equipment and plants for fossil-fired and nuclear power have eroded over the past 10-15 years, the UK has retained expertise at the high-added value end of the supply chain and remains a centre for technical expertise in fossil energy materials, particularly high temperature materials and coatings. A high proportion of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their suppliers have maintained key activities located within the UK. While the skills base needs to be expanded, the UK has the expertise to be at the forefront of future materials-driven technical development in large-scale, conventional power generation.

However, there are some components that UK-based companies cannot supply, such as the largest forgings for civil nuclear pressure vessels and steam generators.

While the UK is a major importer of raw materials, its companies maintain an extensive capability in processing and fabrication (and coating, where applicable) of precision components such as rotors, compressor and turbine blades, discs, rings, and casings for major fossil fuel-fired plants. If the business conditions are favourable this market supply could be increased.

As the strength of the supply chain has diminished, so has the capacity of the industrial and academic base for R&D in materials for fossil-fired power plants. However, many of these activities remain world-class, and make important contributions to the development of materials for high efficiency, low emission power stations, and to the plant services in integrity management, repair, maintenance and life extension.

Since the 1980s, UK public investment in nuclear fission R&D has dropped by more than 95%, and the industrial R&D skills base has decreased by more than 90%. However, the UK has maintained limited leading nuclear materials expertise across both the academic and industrial sectors, with initiatives such as the EPSRC’s Keeping the Nuclear Option Open, the new National Skills Academy for Nuclear and the proposed National Nuclear Laboratory, concentrating UK efforts. These efforts need to expand to meet the Government’s plan for building new nuclear plants.

Renewable energy

The market for renewable energy technologies is not yet mature enough to support sizeable UK-based supply chains. However, this should change if the country uses renewable energy generation, since it has some of the world’s best resources of wind and marine energy to call upon.

Although the country has world-class developers, installers, operators and consultants in wind power, it lacks a full manufacturing capacity and supply chain. However, with the increased commitment to wind power, and the large number of consented developments, UK-based companies with the capacity may supply this market.

As a leader in marine (tidal stream and wave) power generation, approximately half of the world’s current technology developers are headquartered in the UK. In addition, it has pioneered shared facilities for testing wave and tidal devices. There are few marine energy devices or technologies which have reached full-scale testing, yet no immediate materials supply issues exist, as construction largely uses the UK’s existing offshore technologies and knowledge.

A significant area where the UK has both world-leading manufacturing and research capacity is in fuel cells. Here, more than 100 companies are active, from materials R&D to fuel-cell systems integration. The businesses in the sector are developing supply chains as their technologies evolve and are world leaders in catalysts and catalysed components for fuel cells.



Further information:

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