September 8, 2008
Imperial College London's Nigel
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
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
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
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
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
ERN: What are the important social questions related
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
ERN: What are the key issues to communicate to the
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
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
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