Research by leading universities is key to creating a sustainable future for our planet

01 November 2021

Russell Group universities are centres for groundbreaking research and discovery which will be a key ingredient to unlocking the UK's Net Zero future. Across the country, universities are working with each other, as well as with local and national governments, businesses, spinouts, and other stakeholders to drive forward the transition and help the UK meet its climate targets - work which we have pledged to continue.

The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) is exploring how society can live differently – and better – in ways that address climate change. Led by Cardiff University, CAST is a collaboration between Cardiff, Manchester, York, East Anglia, Bath, and Utrecht Universities, and the charity Climate Outreach. Its research looks at the social transformations needed for low-carbon living, such as what we eat, how we use resources, our reliance on cars, expectations around aviation, and how we heat and cool homes. It also highlights the positive benefits of these changes in other areas, such as health and wellbeing, and how these can underpin behaviour and policy. While there is now strong international momentum on climate change mitigation, it is clear that critical targets will be missed without fundamental changes to the way we all live. CAST aims to change understanding about how to transform lifestyles and systems of governance for a sustainable, low-carbon future.

Carbon Re, the first ever spinout to be jointly funded by both University College London and the University of Cambridge, is using Artificial Intelligence to reduce emissions from energy intensive industries such as the manufacture of cement, steel, glass and other materials. These industries are currently responsible for more than 20% of global emissions and are one of the ‘hard to abate’ sectors for which affordable decarbonisation solutions do not currently exist. Carbon Re’s AI technology analyses complex data from the manufacturing process and optimises plant performance to minimise energy consumption while maximising material quality. It is a human in the loop solution that works with plant operators to help them achieve best in class performance and reduce costs and emissions by up to 20%. Carbon Re’s mission is to have gigatons of impact on emissions.

Imperial College London has launched a £12m partnership with Shell and Diamond Light Source to help energy systems transition to net zero pollution by 2050. The EPSRC Prosperity Partnership, known as InFUSE, will examine how technologies like batteries, electric vehicles, chemical production, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be improved by understanding interfaces in these systems, enhancing sustainability and enabling a transition to a green economy. InFUSE will look at these interfaces across Shell’s business units: in grid-scale battery systems, lubricants for use in electric vehicles, new catalysts for producing sustainable chemicals, and how best to store captured carbon underground.

Research at the University of Warwick has established the technical and commercial viability of recycled carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) in high-performance manufacturing industries, driving massive increases in green carbon fibre production. CFRP provides more sustainable transportation solutions and reduced carbon emissions through vehicle and aircraft light-weighting, but its production and end-of-life disposal have a far greater environmental impact than any metal; with up to 40% of CFRP going to landfill. As a result of improved manufacturing processes, annual sales of a new recycled product grew by over 560% in two years, delivering significant environmental benefits.

The University of Birmingham has invested more than £3million of quality-related (QR) research funding in a new facility that is driving the development of innovative energy technologies in partnership with Government and industry. The Tyesley Energy Park (TEP) is an energy innovation zone that is helping shape how Birmingham develops infrastructure for renewable heat and power, energy storage, clean transport fuels and advanced waste processing. The University of Birmingham is using facilities at TEP to support Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund work that will deliver new full-scale rare earth magnet recycling facilities.  It is also developing robotic disassembly pilot lines for recycling batteries, automotive components and electronics to extract critical materials. 

BioYorkshire at the University of York will use biobased innovation to transform Yorkshire’s economy through world-class research and translation facilities, a network of specialised business incubators, training, networking and entrepreneurial support. It will use the region’s established science base to deliver biobased production of chemicals, materials and fuels. The project will also support net-zero food production, farming and wider land use practices. There will be world-leading science infrastructure and training for bioeconomy entrepreneurs and innovators, including a global bioeconomy institute and an accelerator for green businesses. The project aims to create 4,000 highly skilled jobs, support over 800 bioeconomy start-ups and spin outs by 2030, reduce CO2 emissions by 2.8 million tonnes and generate £5bn for the north of England by 2030.

The universities of Newcastle, Durham and Northumbria have formed the North East Centre for Energy Materials, uniting the expertise at the three universities to tackle a grand challenge of energy materials and stimulate collaboration with local, national and international industry. NECEM focuses on the interfaces between the materials and their interaction with the environment in which they operate. By addressing previously unexplored directions NECEM has the ability to provide a step change in the science and engineering of materials that use, generate and store energy more efficiently, such as developing environmentally-friendly surfaces that absorb solar irradiation.

The University of Nottingham has received £1.3m to develop a novel, low-carbon energy storage system to supply cheap, on-demand heat for people living and working in the UK. The technology will help to decarbonise the buildings sector, while also addressing issues of fuel poverty and pollution. The project aims to overcome technical challenges that currently limit the capabilities of conventional thermochemical energy storage systems, which require intermittent operation. The new system proposed will operate continuously at variable temperatures. At the same time, the researchers will investigate social, economic, environmental barriers that prevent the uptake of community-based heat networks in the UK.

Cardiff University and the University of Manchester are partnering with BP and Johnson Matthey in a £9m project that aims to convert CO2, waste and sustainable biomass into clean and sustainable fuels and products that can be used across the energy and transportation sectors. The project is one of eight business-led Prosperity Partnerships announced in the Innovation Strategy. Cardiff University is an internationally-leading centre for catalysis research, and the University of Manchester will provide expertise in materials science, characterisation methods and catalysis. They are joined by BP, which is transitioning from an international oil company to an integrated energy company, and Johnson Matthey, a global leader in sustainable technologies. The partnership will devote the next five years to exploring new catalyst technology to help towards net zero.

A PhD student and entrepreneurial engineer at the University of Southampton, Dr Phil Yue Wu, developed an innovative piece of software with the potential to contribute to a greener society with affordable energy for all. The software creates a 3D virtual city using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and high-resolution raster data collected by remote-sensing technologies. By showing the levels of solar radiation on rooves throughout the year, the model enables him to instantly see which buildings are most suitable for solar energy systems, so people can find out easily whether their home or office could generate solar energy. Now a Research Fellow in the University’s Sustainable Energy Research Group, he has founded the University spin-out company, Absolar, working with the University’s start-up accelerator.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have played a pivotal role in making London’s air healthier. Air pollution is responsible for around 40,000 premature adult deaths in the UK each year. In addition, research has linked air pollution to a range of serious long-term conditions, such as dementia, heart disease and cancer. They showed that increased exposure to nitrogen oxides and particulate matter in London was linked to reduced lung function – and that falls in air pollution due to the London Low Emission Zone weren’t enough to reverse the harm. Their research influenced the introduction of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and the decline of diesel vehicle sales.

The University of Cambridge is launching the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA) at COP26 – an international group of experts in aerospace, economics, policy, and climate science, who are building an interactive evidence-based simulator to allow exploration of scenarios for achieving net zero flight. This will capture the whole aviation sector, from sources of renewable electricity and raw materials to the production and transport of fuel, and the introduction of new aircraft technologies and operations. Leaders in industry and government will gain an understanding of the potential for change and the trade-offs between decisions. The simulator is intended to guide innovation, investment, and policy action, as well as providing wider educational benefits to the public.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool are at the forefront of research into industrially useful sulphur chemistry that could help deliver new, easily recyclable plastics with the potential to help clean our air and water and provide components for everything from batteries to optics. Research at Liverpool identified new production methods for sulphur polymers that reduce temperature requirements and avoid the generation of poisonous hydrogen disulphide gas as a side product, boosting efficiency and making the whole process more eco-friendly. These advances open the door to the potential creation of new and greener porous materials with high surface areas that could have large-scale applications in gas storage, catalysis and filtration.

The University of Bristol has become the first university in the world to achieve institutional Green Labs Certification. Each of their 990 laboratories have gained certification through The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) Programme, through which staff, students and the wider STEM community considered the direct impact of research activities themselves. Laboratories are essential for research and learning, but have five times the environmental impact of offices. LEAF reduces their environmental impact, saving water, plastic, energy and other resources through better waste management, equipment efficiency, chemical management and procurement.

The Joint Centre for Excellence in Environmental Intelligence (JCEEI) is a strategic partnership between the University of Exeter and the Met Office, in collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute. JCEEI provides the expertise and capability to utilise AI to address the escalating threats of climate and biodiversity change. For example, the Climate Impacts Mitigation, Adaption and Resilience (CLIMAR) framework uses Data Science and AI to integrate multiple sources of data to quantify the risks of climate change on populations, infrastructure and the economy across a range of real-world applications. The centre is working with a city council on how climate change is warming cities and the how to cool down buildings, making them safe during heatwaves; developing a Climate Resilience Demonstrator, using climate projections to assess the future risks of flooding on critical infrastructure including energy, communications, water and sewage networks; collaborating with The Alan Turing Institute, energy futures lab at Imperial College London and the Universities of Edinburgh and Warwick on robust approaches to decision making under climate uncertainty for energy security and net zero.

Asda customers succeeded in reducing food waste and saving money through an award-winning scheme developed with Professor William Young from the University of Leeds. The UK throws away 9.5 million tonnes of food each year, and household food waste accounts for 70% of this amount, according to UK waste reduction charity WRAP. Professor Young, an expert on consumer behaviour and modelling, worked with Asda to tackle knowledge barriers faced by consumers around waste. Using established psychology-based theories and by trailing different food waste reduction models, the team developed a range of strategies to help customers waste less. Messaging on both the consequences of wasting food and methods to prevent it was deployed across Asda’s product mix, including their in-store magazine. Face-to-face behaviour change initiatives, such as community networks, focus groups, and in-store ‘champions’ proved highly successful in influencing and motivating consumers to take action.

The University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute has developed modelling tools to help decision makers identify risks from climate-related infrastructure failure and build long-term resilience. The vital services we rely on in our globalised world – such as energy, transport, water, and waste – are increasingly interdependent. When infrastructure fails due to climate events, the consequences reach far beyond the individual sector to impact wider society, economy, and the environment. Over the last nine years, research teams have worked to create tools and methodologies to map infrastructure system interconnections and help decision makers manage the risk of failure. These approaches have been used in the UK by Infrastructure UK, National Infrastructure Commission, Department for Transport, Environmental Agency, High Speed 2 and many others. The approach has also been adopted internationally.

Academics at the Department for Engineering at King’s College London are working towards creating safer, more efficient lithium-ion batteries, contributing to a greener and more sustainable future for us all. As society moves further towards more renewable energy solutions, specifically electric vehicles, there is likely to be a dramatic increase in the use of lithium-ion batteries. As these products become more popular and public transport systems become increasingly electrified, denser lithium-ion batteries will present a greater risk. Collaborating with researchers across Newcastle University and Imperial College London, researchers are investigating the mechanisms through which a lithium battery fire might start and spread, the resulting toxicity, and how a fire might be suppressed safely.

A landmark new  Global Climate Transition Centre will be based at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The Centre will provide free and publicly available in-depth data on how 10,000 companies are aligning with a net zero pathway, significantly scaling existing coverage across global equity markets. The Centre will also scrutinise corporate and sovereign bond issuers – a vital part of the climate transition. Increasing the amount of information that investors have about how companies are managing their greenhouse gas emissions and the risks and opportunities they face will support transparency and accountability, incentivising them to deliver on climate commitments and play their part in meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

The University of Glasgow is carrying out ground-breaking research into the use of hydrogen for heating and household appliances. 80% of homes in the UK have gas central heating, generating up to a third of its greenhouse emissions. Hydrogen is now being considered as a green alternative. Academics are working to produce renewable hydrogen and low-carbon hydrogen-rich synthesis gas from biomass and waste. This research will tackle the challenges of combustion of these types of fuels for heating applications. This ties in with the UK Government’s Clean Growth Strategy for a low carbon future and the transition to hydrogen as a route to decarbonising heat.

The University of Edinburgh’s work promoting sustainable bioenergy practices in Kenya and Tanzania is helping east Africa achieve a United Nations target of sustainable energy for all by 2030. Dr Thomas Molony researched their use of biofuels for the Policy Innovation Systems for Clean Energy Security project, exploring how to make biofuel production more efficient, ensure people have better access to energy and eliminate wastage. The work has contributed to Kenya’s National Biofuel Policy and to a gender working group in Tanzania promoting equality in bioenergy policy. It helped improve the lives and energy security of more than 300,000 people, identifying local agricultural waste products – rice husks and jatropha cakes – as valuable fuel sources for a more efficient, cleaner-burning, biofuel stove.

The University of Sheffield is building a new centre to lead research, innovation and commercial testing of sustainable aviation fuels – the first of its kind in the UK. The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Innovation Centre (SAF-IC), part of the University’s Energy Institute, state-of-the-art facilities to test, certify and deploy new sustainable aviation fuels. The centre will be located at the University of Sheffield Innovation District and assist fuel evaluation activity, testing and certifying new fuels. SAF-IC will be the first centre in the UK able to capture CO₂, produce green hydrogen, convert them into sustainable aviation fuels and analyse their performance at the same location.

A researcher at Queen’s University Belfast is leading a global project focusing on supporting two African communities to manage the impact of climate change on their cultural heritage. Dr Will Megarry, senior lecturer in Geographical Information Science and Archaeology at the School of Natural and Built Environment, is lead investigator on the CVI-Africa project – the Climate Vulnerability Index for World Heritage properties in Africa. The programme will provide training to six African heritage professionals at UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nigeria and Tanzania where communities have been impacted by climate change. The CVI-Africa project will support communities in their efforts to safeguard cultural heritage, respond to climate change and seek sustainable development options.

Newcastle University is enabling collaborative research in the development of electric transport, including for road, air and marine applications. As leader of a national network of four cutting-edge Driving the Electric Revolution Industrialisation Centres, it is at the forefront of global efforts to develop the cars, planes and ships of the future. These Centres bring together the UK’s technology and manufacturing expertise in electrification research and development alongside open-access facilities with state-of-the-art equipment. Focussing on the reduction in carbon emissions from transport, the University team is working alongside regional and national partners to scale up the use of electric motors around the globe.

The University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research partnered with the band Massive Attack to examine the music industry’s environmental impact. They analysed data from the band’s touring schedule to provide information and guidance to the wider music industry to reduce its environmental impact, resulting in the open-access Roadmap to Super Low Carbon Live Music. Massive Attack have designed six major emissions reduction modules for their 2022 tour, to trial them and model the practicalities, and to then bring their learning together in a major UK testbed live show. They are working with others to design bespoke partnerships with a wide variety of music arenas and venues, helping deliver a sustainable live music industry.

Read our pledge to collaborate and help deliver climate solutions for a more sustainable world.

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