Setting the agenda - progress on the Materials UK Strategic Research Agenda

Materials World magazine
1 May 2009

In December 2007, the Energy Materials Working Group of Materials UK launched its Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) for Energy Materials, accompanied by a series of technical reports. Since then, the Group has been implementing the SRA recommendations. Derek Allen, Chairman of the Group, reports

The Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) of Materials UK’s (MatUK) Energy Materials Working Group (EMWG) highlighted the market opportunities being created for the materials supply chain within the energy sector, both nationally and globally, in trying to tackle the triple challenge of climate change, energy poverty and security of supply. To bring these high added-value commercial opportunities to fruition, the SRA identified an underpinning R&D strategy so the UK can develop technologies that will support business going forward.

In the UK alone, recent major announcements by Government are focusing the attention of the industry. These include the go ahead for the construction of new nuclear power plants, a target of 20GW of wind turbines installed by 2020, the commitment to meet the EU 2020 renewables targets (for the UK, 15% of its energy from renewable sources) and construction of the UK’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage demonstrator.

The SRA has defined a pathway by which energy materials R&D in the UK can help deliver solutions, while also helping create wealth in the UK through new business, increased investment and employment.

High expectations

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

• Reducing time to market and lifecycle costs – significant cost reduction and shortening of the materials development and validation lifecycle time for quicker entry to market.
• Higher performance in harsher environments – development of high integrity materials systems for use in increasingly aggressive conditions (temperature, stress and environment), particularly seen by the emerging low carbon energy technologies.
• Improved life management and reliability – improved predictability and modelling of materials behaviour is needed to produce savings on unforeseen plant outages and maintenance costs in the new operating environments. This includes understanding the degradation of materials in service, inspection and repair.

Staying the course

The SRA had seven overriding objectives in its implementation phase. Significant progress has been made in five areas.

Communication – This keeps the energy materials agenda high on the key stakeholders’ list of priorities, especially in a period where the economy is in decline and significant investment in this sector is viewed as one of a small number of potential routes to stimulate economic growth. Discussions have been held with Government and public sector funding agencies to promote the role of materials and communicate the work of the EMWG through articles in Materials World, and other national and international journals, on the technology challenges facing the energy sector, from nuclear power to renewables. The Group also runs presentations at conferences and workshops. In 2008 EMWG published the Energy Materials Supply Chain report, which maps the UK capacity and capabilities in energy materials, identifying opportunities and explaining how they should be addressed and exploited.

Delivery body – EMWG has implemented a group focusing on delivery of the SRA plans. The group comprises stakeholders from industry, academia and funding agencies. Operating through Materials UK, it promotes and implements the SRA and helps initiate the R&D programmes as well as advising key funding agencies. The group is also responsible for updating the SRA to cover changes in energy policy and legislation.

Stable and sustainable long-term funding mechanisms – One of the key objectives of the SRA is to ensure long-term sustainable funding for cradle-to-grave materials R&D. This needs to involve materials development from the laboratory to full-scale demonstration and deployment. The implementation group is working with public and private sector funding agencies to develop and secure this. The SRA has advised the £10m competition on energy materials, launched in Autumn 2007, and helped establish energy materials as a priority area in the advanced materials strategy of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). New competitions recently launched by the TSB on fuel cells and hydrogen (£10m) and carbon abatement technologies (£15m) make reference to the importance of materials technologies and have specific funding available for R&D in these areas.

Also, through international links and work with the materials division within the European Commission, EMWG helped establish a 10m euro call in the European Seventh Framework Programme on energy materials in 2008.

An energy materials knowledge management system – The SRA recognised the need to capture the mass of expertise and data existing within the UK, in nuclear and fossil energy, before it was lost. This is to ensure that maximum benefit is obtained from both existing knowledge and that generated in future R&D. As the first step towards this, MatUK is co-sponsoring an initial activity with a number of Regional Development Agencies and the TSB to identify the UK’s nuclear R&D capacity in terms of skills, resources and supply chain, and where the UK should build on existing knowledge and strengths.

This review, being carried out by the Dalton Institute in conjunction with the National Nuclear Laboratories, will make a number of recommendations relating to knowledge capture and R&D priorities, with a specific section on nuclear materials R&D capacity. The report is to be published this Summer.

International engagement – The resources in the UK cannot solve all of the energy materials challenges alone, so, where appropriate, it should develop international relationships to improve UK prosperity. The EMWG is working closely with the Materials KTN to influence and align the content of international programmes where the UK has an interest. Therefore, the EMWG has two representatives on the European Technology Platform for advanced materials technologies (EuMat) and an energy working group has been established within EuMat to define a European Energy Materials SRA based on the UK model. This will be used to help the Commission define future topic areas. International collaboration of members of the EMWG continues through the UK-US programme on advanced fossil energy materials, where a phase two programme has been agreed.

The two areas not yet addressed, but which remain a priority, are related to technology transfer and the development of skills and resources. It is hoped that these issues will be taken forward later in the year. The EMWG continues to support the re-creation of a high added value industry with the associated skills and resources to make the UK a world leader in clean energy materials technologies.

Further information: Derek Allenderek