September 14, 2020, by sustainablenottingham

Transport: We are already late to the party

David Grant is a Professor of Materials in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. He is also Director of the University of Nottingham’s Beacon in Propulsion Futures: a cross faculty initiative integrating over 100 researchers from different disciplines.


To quote Bob Dylan “the times they are a changin’ ” and perhaps none more so in transport and energy. Sustainable transport is a must as we scramble to meet net zero 2050 carbon targets. Transport currently accounts for approximately a quarter of global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Is also presents some of the greatest challenges in decarbonisation as we ween ourselves from our reliance of fossil fuels. Passenger travel accounts for ca. 60% of these emissions, the remainder being freight.


All forms of transport land, marine and air present challenges and opportunities to decarbonise. Land vehicles generate three quarter of the total CO2 for transport while aircraft expansion was predicted (pre COVID-19)  to increase significantly up from 11%. The challenges of decarbonising for the aerospace industry are the most intense where limitations on volume and mass, combined with propulsion units requiring 10s of MW of power and large energy dense stores,  combined with new systems integration to function reliably with swings of temperature from 50˚C to -50˚C and pressures dropping to a tenth of an atmosphere.


Sustainability is at the core of the Beacon in Propulsion Futures at the University of Nottingham. Developing innovative megawatt electric machines for all forms of transport including flight with increased performance and efficiency is combined with our ambition to provide the largest test facilities in the UK. Key to this is our research into new and sustainable materials to improve efficiency further not just in electric machines but the whole propulsion system from energy carrying devices and systems integration.

Even the smallest innovations have potential for large impact. Developing cost effective insulators that are also thermally conducting would reduce power unit’s sizes and increase efficiencies. New design, new manufacturing methods can improve efficiencies further and developing new sustainable materials for a wide range of applications is critical to the circular economy. Examples at Nottingham include: new designs and manufacturing methods that can improve efficiencies further; sustainable chemistries for thermoelectric devices for scavenging low grade heat; next generation of batteries “beyond Li-ion” with innovative sustainable materials for electrodes and electrolytes; and alternative energy stores such as those based on hydrogen combining with fuel cells will all play a part including, crucially, the integration of all the systems to maximise efficiency. In short it is an exciting time to be an engineer, scientist or social scientist as many of these technologies are mature and require demonstration and public acceptance.


The clock is ticking. Most large vehicles, planes, ships and trains are designed to last longer than 30 years. So, as we enter the autumn of 2020 we are already late to the party. We need to be designing infrastructure and vehicles now with the latest technology otherwise we will be building in CO2 polluting vehicles beyond 2050. This requires multi-billion-pound investment in the UK. Recent events have demonstrated that such funds can be provided in an emergency. We are in a climate change emergency too. We have to act now. It will bring jobs and importantly save us money in the long run. Every £1 spent now in reducing C02 in the UK will save us £10 if we act too late. Or as my grandmother used to say…“A stitch in time saves nine”.


Posted in carbonresearchsustainabilitytechnologytransport