Energy: developing reliable renewable energy sources

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As the world’s population continues to grow, so does our consumption of natural resources. Many of these resources are non-renewable, so research into renewable sources of energy is vital. Research led by BU’s Professor Zulfiqar Khan is tackling this issue through reducing corrosion, improving heat transfer and fluid dynamics, and using nano coatings to enhance surface effiencies in renewable energy systems.

The European Union’s (EU’s) Renewable Energy Directive states that the EU should be producing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; a challenging target for any country. Professor Khan’s research is a direct response to this initiative and to the challenge of finding sustainable and renewable ways of meeting our future energy needs. His research is supported by a team of PhD students, many of whom are fully or part funded by industry and international HEI partners.

One of his major areas of focus is developing solar thermal technology, solar energy is available abundantly due to its nature. “Currently, we are very reliant on Solar Photovoltaic for our solar panels, but we do not have a large supply of the materials used, so using it won’t be sustainable over a long period,” explains Prof Khan. “I am developing means of using readily available and sustainable materials to be applied in flat plate solar thermal systems through a combination of thermofluids with nano additives and efficient thermal storage, which will help meet our future energy needs. I am also looking at ways to move away from standalone panels to integrating them within standard building practices.”

Professor Khan explains the different components in the system: “There are four parts to this system. One part focuses upon generating heat for colder climates, while within warmer climates it focuses on generating electricity. The third part of the project looks at thermo-fluids, with the aim of improving the efficiency of fluids within the solar energy system. The final part will be the integration of heat storage and recovery system from waste.”

At the moment Professor Khan and his team of PhD students and Post Docs are testing the system for generating electricity in warmer climates. Funding from industry has allowed Professor Khan and his team to set up labs in Poole, which include a scale model of the solar thermal system – an invaluable tool for testing. The first two phases of heat generation in cold climates and generating electricity in warmer climates have been successfully commissioned. The third and fourth phase of optimisation of thermo-fluids and heat storage are in progress.

The very nature of the programme and its complexity means that an interdisciplinary approach is vital. Professor Khan’s research combines materials sciences (nano coatings), mechanical engineering (heat transfer and thermodynamics), and electrochemistry (corrosion). “It is the combination of several subjects and disciplines which guarantees the delivery of objectives of this very challenging and exciting programme, which will put BU in particular and the UK in general on the international map as a leader in developing clean energy technologies,” says Professor Khan. “This is why we shouldn’t shy away from other disciplines as it can bring huge benefits and opportunities to research which will give it originality, significance and reach.”

The research and its interdisciplinary nature has the potential to make a significant difference to society as it presents a solution to one of the biggest challenges now facing us – how to meet our current and future energy needs. “I think we can learn to do without many things, but without energy, life as we know it would not be the same,” says Professor Khan. “With our current levels of consumption and the non-renewable sources we are using, our energy sources won’t last forever. If we look to the future, our energy reserves used at our current rates will last us perhaps another 50 – 60 years for oil and gas, and coal another 100 years. What are we going to do when that runs out?”

You can read Professor Khan’s most recent publication on Thermodynamic modelling and analysis of a solar organic Rankine cycle employing thermofluids here

You can find more of Professor Khan’s publications on his staff profile.

The team would like to thank UK and International industry as well as HEI partners for providing funding and resources to enable their research to take place.