Faced with a global climate emergency, many countries are committing to achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions, including Wales. To help achieve this, they are moving from traditional combustion energy generation towards renewables, such as wind and solar power.
The challenge with renewables is that they are a fluctuating energy source because they rely on weather, so gas turbines are often used to maintain stability on the grid. But these turbines traditionally use fuels such as natural gas, which produce carbon dioxide when combusted or burnt.
If we want a completely decarbonised power sector, we need to decarbonise gas turbines.
There is growing recognition that hydrogen is needed in zero carbon energy systems.
Wales is home to world-leading hydrogen research and development projects and facilities, including Cardiff University and its Gas Turbine Research Centre in Port Talbot, where I’m based. My former employer, RWE, which runs Pembroke Power Station and is Wales’ largest power generator from both gas and renewables, has also launched the Pembroke Net Zero Centre. One of the centre’s three pillars include the decarbonisation of Pembroke Power Station, including studies for carbon capture and the feasibility of hydrogen as a fuel.
Keen to understand the effect of hydrogen in its gas turbines, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and RWE agreed to co-fund my PhD research into the effect of turbulence on auto ignition in hydrogen-enriched fuels.
While hydrogen is much-researched, little has been done on this niche area beyond a small collection of research papers published more than a decade ago by Cambridge University, which looked at the effect of turbulence on fuel ignition.
I have completed my research and designed an experimental rig that will be developed in early 2022, before running combustion tests at the Gas Turbines Research Centre, along with computational simulations.
While this research is specific to one part of one machine, there is scope to then test the introduction of hydrogen in these systems across different conditions to inform other designs for hydrogen combustion systems.
As existing standards for natural gas are insufficient to manage hydrogen’s unique transport properties and greater proclivity to explode, I am also working with the European Turbine Network to develop health and safety standards for hydrogen gas turbine enclosures. The Network is a global non-profit association focused on accelerating research, development, demonstration and deployment of safe, secure and affordable carbon-neutral energy solutions.
When complete, this work will show RWE the effect of hydrogen’s presence on the gas grid on their generating assets. The findings could be important to the energy sector and consumers worldwide.
Exploring other research and methodologies before embarking on my own has been crucial to my research journey. Before starting this project, I spent considerable time studying tidal energy, particularly the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, which was set to be the world’s first tidal lagoon power plant. What stayed with me after learning about that project was the need to champion smaller ‘pathfinding’ projects for new technology that could pave the way for larger, more economically viable ones down the line.
I also poured over any relevant existing research, particularly a small collection of research papers published by Cambridge Universityi between 2007 and 2011 (approximately), which focus on autoignition in turbulent flows.
Academia isn’t always great at disseminating its findings. But engaging people, particularly younger people, in the incredible research being carried out across Wales into low carbon energy and the environment is crucial to ensuring we retain the support we need to achieve ‘net zero’ in Wales and beyond.
We are fortunate that hydrogen is of such interest now internationally that any research related to its potential use will naturally garner attention and interest. But I don’t want to rely on that. I created a short video introducing my research, which was shown at Wales Climate Week and won a competition organised by Low Carbon Energy and Environment Research Network Wales.
Securing funding for research is important and not always easy. I applied for support from the Worshipful Livery Company of Wales, which is dedicated to helping young people throughout Wales to develop their talents and skills by means of scholarships and bursaries. I was awarded a travel scholarship and their gold award, which was a £5,000 grant for career development. I plan to use the travel scholarship to attend a ASME Turbo Expo 2022 conference when the pandemic permits, and the financial prize will fund the testing rig’s development for my research.
There have been challenges along this research journey. More than a year into my research, I was told by the turbine manufacturer that I was pursuing the wrong research question and I needed to go back to the drawing board. It was tempting to give up at that point, but I didn’t and we’re now onto something great. But that experience taught me the importance of embracing failure, overcoming setbacks and learning from mistakes.