Q&A
September 8, 2008

Imperial College London's Nigel Brandon

Energy Research News Editor Eric Smalley carried out an email conversation with Nigel Brandon, an electrochemical engineer at Imperial College London.

Brandon is a leading authority on fuel cells. He holds the Shell Chair in Sustainable Development in Energy, is Executive Director of the Imperial College Energy Futures Lab, and is Senior Research Fellow to the UK Research Councils Energy program and the UK Government Office of Science Focal Point in Energy with China.

He's a founder and Chief Scientist of fuel cell company Ceres Power. He was awarded the 2007 Silver Medal from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering for his contribution to engineering leading to commercial exploitation.

Brandon is a Fellow at the Energy Institute, the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, and The City and Guilds of London Institute. He is on the editorial boards of the journals Renewable Power Generation, ChemSusChem, and Power and Energy.

He's been a researcher at BP and Rolls-Royce, and he holds an engineering degree and PhD from Imperial College London.

ERN: What are the important or significant trends you see in energy research?

NB: Whole systems energy research, with attention paid to technological and social issues across the whole life cycle -- so a holistic approach to tackling energy issues.

ERN: What's the general focus of your research, and how does it relate to energy?

NB: My research relates on energy conversion using fuel cell technology, along with the production and use of renewable fuels within fuel cell devices.

Much of my work [is] focussed on understanding and developing improved fuel cell devices which meet durability and cost targets to enable widepsread deployment. Fuel cells have the advantage of high efficiency and low emissions compared to other energy conversion devices such as heat engines.

ERN: What's the state of fuel cell research in general, and solid oxide fuel cells in particular?

NB: Fuel cells are now available commercially in niche markets, and as time goes forward they will find increasing commercial application.

SOFCs [solid-oxide fuel cells] offer the advantage that they can deliver the high efficiency generation of electrical and heat on a wide range of fuels, including widely available fuels such as natural gas. They are close to commercial application for some areas, such as small scale combined heat and power devices, once durability has been demonstrated with confidence in real operating conditions. It is this latter issue that is the main focus of SOFC R&D.

ERN: What are the milestones to watch for?

NB: Demonstration of devices over long operating times in actual applications.

ERN: Do solid oxide fuel cells have a future as vehicle power sources?

NB: That is not the focus of SOFC research -- though they may well have a role as auxiliary power units on vehicles, or as part of a hybrid propulsion system integrated with batteries.

ERN: What's your view of the potential of water splitting to generate practical amounts of hydrogen for fuel cells?

NB: Solar-driven water splitting is an exciting long-term option that could offer low-cost renewable hydrogen, but this remains at an early stage. In the nearer term electrolysis for water splitting must be coupled with renewable electricity to make environmental sense -- but at the moment this is relatively expensive.

ERN: What needs to happen to make it less expensive?

NB: Improvements in the performance of the materials used for either photochemical or biological water splitting reactions, together with new reactor designs.

ERN: Tell me about your company: Ceres Power Ltd.

NB: Ceres Power are commercialising a novel metal supported Solid Oxide Fuel Cell design, originally conceived at Imperial College London. This offers a number of advantages where robust, low cost, fuel-flexible but efficient devices are needed. The company continues to report progress towards its commercial markets in areas such as residential scale combined heat and power.

ERN: What application do you see solid oxide fuel cells fitting best, residential, large building/campus, or municipal?

NB: The first applications are likely to be at the residential scale, but eventually you will find SOFCs in all these applications.

ERN: What are the important social questions related to energy?

NB: There is a very important social question related to energy demand, and how we minimise our energy use. Also related is the public acceptability of new energy technologies, for example the siting of wind turbines.

ERN: What are your thoughts on the state of public understanding of energy and energy research?

NB: More work and effort is needed to communicate what is a complex field -- this is vital if governments are to be motivated by informed public opinion to make some of the hard decisions we are facing in meeting our growing energy demand in a sustainable way.

ERN: What could be done to improve the pursuit of energy research in terms of business trends, politics, and/or social trends?

NB: Energy research budgets remain low so clearly increasing this is important. Also important is the supply of high quality people to work in the sector, and the appropriate reward and recognition of professional scientists, engineers and technologists by society.

ERN: In a perfect world how would we get our electricity?

NB: Via a mix of sustainable and low-carbon sources, working togther in an integrated manner, including energy from waste, renewables, and carbon sources fitted with carbon capture technology.

ERN: In terms of energy and anything affected by energy, what will be different about our world in five years? In 10? In 20?

NB: I think we will consider the energy system as whole, with better integration of more technologies to increase efficiency and reduce cost. I also believe there will be a continued shift in behaviour to one which places greater emphasis on reduced energy consumption, from both a moral and cost perspective.

ERN: What can the average person do? What can institutions and governments do?

NB: Everyone can pay attention to their use of transport, and their use of electrictricity and gas in the home, for example. They can also purchase goods and services from providers who pay attention to these issues. Institutions and Governments must provide leadership, and support for those with ideas and technologies which help reduce energy demand, and provide low carbon solutions.

ERN: What do you imagine you will be working on in five years? 10 years?

NB: I still expect to be working on fuel cell technology, but with a focus improving performance and durability based on real-world operating experience, in the same way that we continue to develop mature technologies such as the gas turbine and the internal combustion engine. I also expect there to be increasing focus on the use of renewable fuels, and fuels from waste, within fuel cell technologies which present additional and new research challenges.

ERN: What got you interested in science and technology?

NB: I was interested at school, from where I chose to read engineering at Imperial College. But it was my time as a student at Imperial that really ignited my interest.

ERN: What's the most important piece of advice you can give to a child who shows interest in science and technology?

NB: Make sure you read around the subject, go to some public lectures at your local university or science/engineering society -- studying science can be difficult and so it is important to understand the context and importance of the subjects you are studying

ERN: What's the most important piece of advice you can give to a college student who shows interest in science and technology?

NB: Sometimes students can get lost in learning the tools of science and lose sight of why they were interested in the subject at a younger age. So make sure you go to a range of lectures (not just the timetabled ones), talk to your professors about their work, and try to get a vacation job in your field of study.

ERN: What are your interests outside of work, and how do they inform how you understand and think about energy, and science and technology in general?

NB: I like walking, and visits to museums, galleries and the theatre -- they all give me time and space to think. My two sons are also interested in science, which stimulates me think about the communication of key science and tecnology issues to the younger generation.

ERN: What are the key issues to communicate to the younger generation?

NB: Exciting them about the role they can play in the future not only as a user, but also as scientists and engineers who will help solve the energy challenge; explaining the complex issues involved, with many trade offs between different energy options; and discussing the importance of individual behaviour in determining energy demand.

ERN: What question would you like to be asked in an interview like this? What's the answer to that question?

NB: Q: Who has been important to you throughout your career?

A: My wife Jan, who has supported me throughout my career, from my days as an impovrished PhD student, to my current role where I am away travelling for many weeks of the year.


Back to ERN September 8/15, 2008

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