Dr Sergei Lebedev and his team at the Dublin Institute of Advances Studies (DIAS) are exploring how the Earth’s tectonic plates move, deform and evolve with time. Interactions of the plates with each other and with the hot rock underneath them, raise mountain belts, generate earthquakes and volcanoes, and control the development of natural resources in the Earth’s crust. New data from dense seismic arrays in Ireland, deployed by Dr Lebedev’s team and collaborators, reveal numerous, previously undetected micro-earthquakes. Seismic imaging is producing a detailed, 3-D model of the structure of Ireland’s crust and lithosphere. This 3-D model gives the team new clues on how Ireland formed in plate collisions hundreds of million years ago, and what caused the enigmatic volcanic eruptions that created spectacular features including the Giant’s Causeway. The improved understanding of the thermal structure of the crust and of local earthquakes will help us assess Ireland’s deep geothermal resources and the feasibility of carbon capture and storage.
Trinity College Dublin based synthetic chemist Prof Sylvia Draper and her team are working with newly engineered energy materials. Through their efforts they are creating new candidates for next-generation opto-electronic (e.g. solar energy or light-emitting) devices. Among the many advantages that their materials can bring to existing technologies, they are exploring alternative energy sources. Fuel-Cells, which offer high energy-density, efficiency and a low emission rate are used commercially in stationary power stations and portable back-up devices. The aim of Professor Draper’s work is to use materials with novel and precise composition to help overcome the current cost and technical issues, that are holding-back the broader application of fuel cells. This is achieved by using discrete model systems to test the source of improvements in the function of the electrodes and minimising the amount of precious metals typically used.
More energy reaches the Earth in one hour as sunshine than humanity consumes yearly. UCC based electrochemist Dr Micheál Scanlon is working on next-generation solar cell devices, looking to develop cheaper more efficient devices to capture and convert this abundant energy source. Typical solar cells rely on expensive, difficult to scale, rare materials to convert solar energy, however, new liquid-based solar cells will use light-harvesting molecules based on nature’s own mechanisms to convert light to energy. Dr Scanlon‘s work focuses on ‘soft interfaces’, so called as there is no solid material required, they use fluid based light harvesting molecules or nanoparticles to create all liquid based solar cells. These liquid cells would be easily and cheaply scaled up to industrial levels, environmentally friendly, and applicable globally.
At present harvesting solar energy is still an expensive endeavour, principally due to the number of solar cells required to collect enough sunlight for conversion into useable quantities of energy, particularly in the urban environment. Prof Rachel Evans and her team in TCD are working on a solution in the form of Luminescent Solar Concentrators (LSCs). They concentrate sunlight by absorbing and re-emitting it at a lower frequency within the confines of a transparent plate containing luminophores (light emitting molecules). This emitted light is guided to the plate edges, where it is converted to electricity by solar cells. This process of concentrating the sun’s light can be exploited to transform buildings into energy-harvesting machines, reducing the number of solar cells required and leading to a significant improvement in the efficiency and scope of solar technology for our cities.
Together with partners from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) in Colorado, USA, Prof Albert Ruth has developed a compact ultra-sensitive instrument for the detection of highly reactive atmospheric trace constituents and greenhouse gases. The instrument is deployed in a fully automated container on board commercial Lufthansa flights to destinations around the globe, this allows data to be gathered in regions of the atmosphere that are otherwise not easily accessible. The data obtained reveals the nature and mechanisms of chemical processes in the upper atmosphere and helps quantify the vertical transport of pollutants from the ground to altitudes of 10-12 km. Long-term, experimental monitoring of that kind will enable the continued global assessment of atmospheric conditions and help reduce uncertainties in global climate predictions.
Prof Vincent O’Flaherty and his team at NUI Galway, are developing technologies which treat wastewaters from households (sewage) and industry (food production). The system relies on microorganisms to not only purify wastewater but to generate energy. The bacteria transform pollutants from the wastewater into methane, a low carbon natural fuel source, via anaerobic digestion. High phosphorus concentrations are also produced as a by-product of anaerobic digestion. The aim of Prof O’Flaherty’s work is to combine anaerobic digestion and the removal and recovery of the phosphorus by using biofilms, a thin film of bacteria and microorganisms. Low-temperature anaerobic digestion technology by Prof O’Flaherty was licensed from NUI, Galway to Nucleus VP Energy in June 2013. This research will improve the sustainability of food production, limit the impact on the environment and increase economic competitiveness.
As increased expectations are placed on renewable energy to satisfy growing energy demands, it is vital that a diverse range of renewable resources can be economically harnessed. Prof John Ringwood is developing the next generation of intelligent nonlinear wave energy device controllers which can maximise the amount of power generated from wave energy, aiding in the drive to make wave energy economic. The oscillatory wave motion is more challenging than harnessing wind energy and accurate device models are needed for power production assessment, simulation and model-based control strategies. In particular, accurate nonlinear model-based control is required if the device generating load is to be optimally varied over changing wave cycles and sea conditions, maximising energy capture. In addition, future knowledge of approaching waves can be effectively used to anticipate control requirements, so the project also focusses on wave forecasting. Overall, this research will improve the economic viability of wave energy as a renewable energy source.
Dr Sara Armstrong, an electrical research fellow based in UCC is currently working with industry partner DP Energy on improving the integration of renewable energy into energy grids, in Ireland and for international sites. The grid connection of renewable energy into our current power grid can introduce challenges to the safe operation of the grid including voltage levels, flicker, and harmonics. This is partly due to variability in the amount of renewable energy produced as weather conditions change, and the characteristics of the grid itself. Dr Armstrong uses simulation models of power systems to assess the potential impact of integrating renewable energy on the operation and stability of the transmission grid. These models will take into account fault conditions as well as normal grid conditions. Combined with the analysis of relocation and combination of power conversion equipment and the storage of renewable energy, this work will help inform renewable farm electrical design, may significantly minimise the amount of expensive power conditioning equipment needed, and ease the commercialisation path of renewable energy integration.