EPS Research Vision and Review

By Professor Martin Freer, Director of Research

As the dust settles on the financial year it is worth reflecting a little. There are many ways of measuring performance and success and some will flatter others less so. However, very few would argue that 2012–13 has been a transformational year in terms of research within the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

Research income has reached £45m, a 30% increase since 2011–12 and 125% over 2010–11. The awards are higher than any time in the history of the College, and represent nearly 50% of total research income of the University. Without doubt EPS is the engine driving the success of the University.

But how on earth has this been possible? Well, it is through the superhuman efforts of a very large number of individuals across the College and in every single School. In the last two years the number of funding applications has nearly doubled and even more so by value. Over the last five years both industrial and European funding have doubled.

The last year saw HEFCE and Rolls Royce fund the £60m High Temperature Research Centre (HTRC), which will be built at Ansty Park. This will be sited next to the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) of which Birmingham is a key partner and is going from strength to strength.

Most recently EPS won a £6m EPSRC capital bid with additional industrial contributions worth £5m to construct an energy storage facility. This will help address a major national challenge regarding electricity production and usage. As the UK builds an increasing number of wind farms – many offshore – one of the questions is what to do when the wind does not blow. The other problem is what to do when the wind is blowing and providing more electricity than required. Currently the surplus is dumped. Clearly the solution to the latter is to find ways of storing the excess to be used at times of low production. Currently energy storage is limited to sources such as hydroelectric plants – of which there are few.

The new funding will help us develop approaches which could provide technological solutions to the intermittency of renewable energy. We will establish a cryogenic energy storage facility on campus. Here electricity is used to liquefy nitrogen gas (essentially air)—this is where energy is stored. The energy is then released by allowing the liquid nitrogen to boil and turn into gas, expanding dramatically to drive a turbine, and generate electricity.

Such landmark projects will permit the University to grow national and international leadership in disciplines of unquestionable importance. Both government and research councils appear keen to continue to fund large scale initiatives which either cement or grow scientific or technological leadership—the University and College remains committed to being creative in how it exploits such opportunities.

Complacency should not follow success but rather momentum. The College is keen to improve in areas where we are underperforming competitors. Not least of these is in securing research council and Royal Academy of Engineering Fellowships and EPSRC platform and programme grants. If you would like help in developing applications please contact the College Research & Knowledge Transfer Team: https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/eps/research-knowledge-transfer/index.aspx  

Finally, as the 2012/13 financial year is extinguished, I would like to recognise some of the “what ever lies beyond superhuman” efforts of the R&KT Team, led by Paul Marshall, supported by David Boardman, Greg Howard, Padma Reddy and John Woodward, with the new assistant Parini Mankad. In a year which has seen increased demand on their time in terms of development of new initiatives, capital bids and centres for doctoral training, the commitment at times was above and beyond what one might reasonably expect.