News and events

Radio 4 ‘Inside Science’ interview

Philip Davies was interviewed by Adam Rutherford of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme. He spoke about the recent growth in desalination capacity across the world and how this is contributing to climate change. He also spoke about research at Aston University highlighting the opportunity to absorb carbon dioxide into waste brines from desalination plants. Solar energy can split the brine into magnesium oxide and hydrochloric acid. The magnesium oxide is a strong absorber for carbon dioxide and the hydrochloric acid can be disposed of by reacting it with silicate rocks which are abundant in the earth’s crust. This could result in desalination plants becoming net sinks, rather than net emitters, of carbon dioxide. (Feb 2015).

Development of new biofuels

A team of Sustainable Environment Research Group (SERG) and European Bioenergy Research Institute (EBRI) researchers worked jointly with a biofuel company Green Frog Fuels Ltd. to assess and develop their new biofuels.Two renewable biofuels samples were supplied by the company: (i) Glidfuel (GF) – obtained as a waste product of paper industry, and (ii) POME (Palm Oil Mill Effluent) biodiesel – produced from the effluent of the palm oil producing mills through various treatment and transesterification process. The physical and chemical properties of these two new biofuels were measured separately and compared with the respective properties of the standard fossil diesel. Furthermore, the Glidfuel and POME biodiesel were mixed together at various proportions, and separately with fossil diesel, to assess the miscibility and blends properties. Based on the blends properties, SERG researchers suggested optimum GF-POME fuel blends as fossil diesel replacement for combined heat and power application. Mr Jon Irving Bell of the Green Frog Fuels commented that ‘the results are encouraging for us and we are interested to collaborate further with Aston for engine testing’. This work was funded by European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Digested Pryolysis Oil- an Alternative Fuel for Diesel Engine

Anaerobic digestion (AD) produces biogas from organic biomass waste materials. The biogas contains mainly CH4 and CO2; the waste stream form the AD plant (known as digestate) contains soil nutrients. In the UK alone, AD plants generate approximately 277,000 tonnes of digestate annually -currently, the digestate is widely used as a fertiliser in farm land to release the soil nutrients. However, there is a concern on land spreading of digestate due to the possible heavy metals and pathogen content if not controlled properly. As an alternative approach, pyrolysis of the digestate was carried out in EBRI lab using a reactor known as Pyroformer®. SERG researchers investigated the feasibility of using pyrolysis oil produced from anaerobically digested arable crops as a fuel for diesel engine application. The pyrolysis oil was blended with waste cooking oil and n-butanol. Initial tests results showed that up to 30% digestate pyrolysis oil can be used in the diesel engine. Lead researcher Dr Abul Hossain said ‘this is an interesting finding which could open-up a new area of converting huge digestate resources into renewable biofuels for internal combustion engine application’.  

Dr. John Elgy was offered honary membership of the Association of Agrometeorologists, India 

Dr. John Elgy was invited to the International Symposium on New-Dimensions in Agrometeorology for Sustainable Agriculture (NASA-2014),16-18 October, GBPUAT, Pantnagar, India by the Association of Agrometeorologists, India. Dr Elgy was on the international advisory board and chaired two sessions of the conference.
He also presented a key note address on New Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture where he showed how new developments in airborne remote sensing allowed farmers to accurately assess how much irrigation and fertiliser to apply to their fields to maximise yield yet reduce the use of resources and potential pollution. He showed the work being done by Mechanical Engineering students in developing low cost autonomous airborne vehicles as the platform for lightweight sensors.
This work continued the close collaboration that has developed between the oldest agricultural university in India and Aston University formed over a number of collaborative projects over the last 5 years.
In recognition of his contribution to GB Pant University and Indian agriculture Dr. Elgy was offered honorary membership of the Association of Agrometeorologists, India. (Oct 14)

Indian High Commissioner visits Aston and is informed about work on Micro-Industrial Complexes

His Excellency Mr. Ranjan Mathai, Indian High Commissioner, visited Aston University to find out about research activities relevant to India. Philip Davies of the Sustainable Environment Research Group gave a presentation to him about the Agro-based Micro-Industrial Complex which has been constructed under the Science Bridge project funded by Research Councils UK and Department of Science and Technology (Govt of India). The complex, which is situated in the village of Malunga near Jodhpur (Rajasthan), is designed to use agricultural produce from the surrounding area. A biomass-fuelled cogeneration system powers cooling for food storage, oil-seed pressing and water purification for bottling. The complex will add value to traditional activities and help promote employment and enterprise. It has been developed in collaboration with IIT Delhi and with the help of School of Desert Sciences, a NGO based in Rajasthan. His Excellency toured the labs at Aston and met several senior members of staff who showed him Aston research in areas including waste management, pyrolysis and business-related topics. (Sept 14)

John Elgy in India- International Symposium on New-Dimensions in Agrometeorology for Sustainable Agriculture
Dr John Elgy


biomass boiler
Biomass boiler at Malunga

Food security for Middle East: cultivation in solar-cooled greenhouses will have lower carbon footprint than imports

Erasmus placement student Yoko van der Sterre has undertaken a study on solar-powered liquid-desiccant cooling systems for greenhouse cultivation of tomatoes in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. With growing populations and scarce water resources, Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia are looking for new ways to produce their own food. One solution is to grow crops in water-efficient greenhouses but, under the extremely hot climate, greenhouses will require refrigeration. Research at the Sustainable Environment Research Group previously showed the feasibility of using solar-cooling systems to lengthen the growing season for a variety of crops, but the systems require large solar collectors to regenerate the desiccant solution. Regeneration refers to the process of driving moisture out of the desiccant so that it can be repeatedly re-used. The solar collectors may occupy more area than the greenhouse itself which would be expensive.

Visiting Aston from HAS University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, Yoko proposed to carry out the regeneration using vacuum evaporators with thermal compression. The compressor can be powered by electricity obtained from PV arrays. He calculated that a PV array of area 474 m2 would be needed to cool a greenhouse of area 1000 m2. He also compared the carbon footprint of solar-cooled local cultivation against import by ship and lorry from the Netherlands, where greenhouses are heated using combined heat and power systems fuelled by natural gas. Using Life Cycle Assessment software Simapro 8, he found that local cultivation with PV will result in a carbon footprint of 0.0886 kgCO2 per kg of tomato which is 10 times lower than the footprint of imported tomatoes at 0.88 kgCO2/kg. But if the solar-powered cooling system is powered by conventional grid electricity the carbon footprint is much higher at 1.76 kgCO2/kg. The study also considered the option of powering the compressor using electricity from a solar thermal power station using parabolic trough collectors. This options also has a favourable carbon footprint. Another benefit of using solar PV or solar thermal power is that, during some winter months, cooling may not be needed and the electricity could be sold or used for other purposes. (March 2014)

Action Group on Renewable Energy-Desalination

Philip Davies of the Sustainable Environment Research Group is representing Aston University on the newly formed Action Group of the European Innnovation Partnership on Water, alongside partners including Agricultural University of Athens, Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas, Medioambientales y Tecnológicas (Almería, Spain), European Desalination Society, Fraunhofer Institute (Munich) and University of Palermo. The Action Group will promote the application of renewable energy to desalination at the European level. In Europe and many world regions, the demand for freshwater is outstripping supply. Increasingly people are turning to the sea as a source of water. The process of desalination involves removing the salt from seawater, to make it suitable for drinking, sanitation or irrigation. But desalination requires a large amount of energy, so it makes sense to use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Solar energy, for example, abounds in hot countries where water is most needed. Though the use of renewable energy for desalination is proven, there are many barriers to its adoption, and many improvements to the technology are possbile. As well as supporting R&D in this area, the action group will raise awareness of the of the available products and technologies and help to demonstrate their market potential. It will also work to bring about more effective policies for deployment of technologies that make sense for both the water and energy sectors. (Sept 2013).

Living Lab will remove barriers to electric vehicle use

Brian Price of the Sustainable Environment Research Group has obtained funding from the EC Marie Curie Programme to investigate overcoming the barriers to the adoption of electric vehicle through research on real drivers in a living lab in Denmark. The BUMILLA project will build on the work of the CABLED project which studied the behaviour of drivers of electric vehicles in the West Midlands. The CABLED project revealed that electric vehicles travel far enough and fast enough for 98% of journeys – but remain too expensive for most drivers. In collaboration with University of Gothenburg and Insero e-mobility, the Aston team will now study every aspect of electric vehicle usage for users living in a smart housing development having solar panels and intelligent energy management.

Not only can electric vehicles provide low- carbon transport, as vehicles are parked for 94% of the day, their large batteries can store electricity from the grid and sell it back when demand is high. This is vital in a country like Denmark which relies heavily on wind turbines, which are subject to intermittent supply and increasingly relevant to the UK energy sector. Speaking at a recent research seminar at Aston University, Price commented: ‘Vehicle users perceptions of their daily journey distances are often greater than reality. Thus their anxiety about the range of an electric vehicle is usually unfounded. Once this psychological problem is removed, the cost of electric vehicles is still a big issue. There are still only about 3,000 vehicles in the road in the UK which is way below the predictions from government and vehicle developers. To make electric vehicles more affordable, different business models are possible. For example, the driver can lease a battery on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ basis. BUMILLA will research business options using a real-life scenario based on the Living Lab.’ (February 2013)

Sharing knowledge across the Mediterranean

Philip Davies of the Sustainable Environment Research Group has participated in a conference organised by the Sharing Knowledge Foundation, aimed at improving understanding among researchers and policymakers from countries North and South of the Mediterranean. Delegates leant about the very strong prospects for growth among African economies. This growth is going to require massive investments in basic infrastructure such as energy, water, transport and telecommunications. But many African countries still lack capacity in technology, financial institutions, and the underpinning educational sector.  Growth in African economies may benefit the more stagnant economies of Europe by providing new markets and applications for technological developments.

Despite the vast land resources of the continent, Africa is still a net importer of food. Exports are hindered by the absence of roads and by complicated customs procedures. On the other hand, many promising developments are benefitting the rural population. One example cited at the conference was ‘i-Cow’, a mobile phone service helping Kenyan dairy farmers plan their daily activities and get veterinary advice. And in countries like Morocco there has been extensive electrification in the countryside with the use of photovoltaic panels.

Speaking in the session about alternative sources of water, Dr Davies gave his presentation on the long-term future of desalination powered by solar energy. The predicted shortfall in sustainable water resources over the coming decades is very serious. Across the Middle Eastern and North African region, demand is forecast to increase by 100 cubic kilometres per year by 2030 – equal to the flow of the river Nile. Most of this will be required for irrigation. Desalination is already providing an important source of water in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Algeria and Israel. But it is expensive and one of the main reasons for this is the high usage of energy. In his presentation, Dr Davies showed that solar energy could help provide a sustainable solution. He highlighted some of the current research activities aimed at improving the processes of solar energy conversion and desalination. But there are also many low-cost ways of capturing and conserving freshwater resources, he pointed out, and he concluded that it is important to take an integrated approach to the management of energy and water resources to provide food for growing populations. (May 2012).

External link to Sharing Knowledge Foundation

PhD students demonstrate prototype desalination machine for arid countries

PhD students Opubo Igobo and Clara Qiu have demonstrated  ‘Desalink’:  a new concept for high-efficiency desalination of groundwater. DesaLink will provide freshwater from brackish wells, while operating entirely from solar energy and producing a minimal waste stream of concentrated brine. At the recent launch event, visitors saw the machine operate continuously and drank the water it produced.

The prototype unit has been designed entirely at Aston University and built by a local company. It will find use in arid, salt-affected lands such as India, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and Australia. Shortage of freshwater tends to coincide with abundance of sunlight – so it makes sense to use solar energy to drive the desalination process. DesaLink is designed to work from low temperature heat, readily provided by solar, industrial or geothermal sources. The Aston team is keen to identify industrial partners to help commercialise this exciting development.  (May 2012)

DesaLink machine
Clara Qiu and Opubo Igobo with DesaLink

Unlimited possibilities for polymer solar cells

Solar photovoltaic cells are one of the fastest growing sources of energy. But today 95% of solar cells are made out of just one material, crystalline silicon, which is expensive to produce. Another downside is that it takes years for the cells to generate the amount of energy that went into making them.


Dr Paul Topham, Dr Andy Sutherland and their team of applied polymer chemists at Aston are working on new polymer-based materials to create the next generation of inexpensive thin-film organic solar cells. New polymer systems are incorporated into formulations that can be painted on to a variety of surfaces to produce flexible, lightweight films. The Aston team has recently joined forces with researchers across Europe to increase power efficiencies and lifetimes of the new photovoltaic devices using polymer nanotechnology.


 ‘Silicon solar cells have been under development since the 1950s and the technology has now reached something of a plateau,’ says Dr Topham, ‘Organic solar cells, on the other hand, are still very much in their infancy and with polymers each constituent of the cell can be tailored at the molecular level: the possibilities are virtually unlimited.’ (February 2012).


 External link to European Consortium ESTABLIS

PV cells

Solar Thermal Collector designed and built

PhD students Jonathan Nixon and Opubo Igobo, of the Sustainable Environment Research Group, have designed and installed a new design of solar thermal collector on the roof of Aston University. The collector is electronically controlled to follow the movement of the sun. It will be used in India to provide a much needed energy source read more. (November 2011).

Special Journal Issue reports on UK-India collaboration

Members of the Sustainable Environment Research Group have contributed 6 articles to a Special Journal Issue reporting on more than 3 years of collaborative research between UK and Indian universities. Entitled Water Management & Biomass Production for Rural Energy Systems, the Special Issue covers topics including Rain Fed and Wastewater Irrigation, Treatment and Use of Brackish Water, and Biomass Energy Conversion. Further contributors include IIT Delhi, GP Pant University, Haryana Agricultural University, Rajasthan Agricultural University and the universities of Bristol, Coventry Leeds, and Warwick. Published in the Journal of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Special Issue is freely available to download at link. (August 2011).

Solar-powered fans cool tomato crop in Australian desert

Solar powered fans
Members of the Sustainable Environment Research Group have designed a solar-powered fan that has been used to cool greenhouses in the Australian outback. Ten of the solar-powered fans, each measuring 1.25 m in diameter, have been installed near Port Augusta by the London based company Seawater Greenhouse Ltd. The fans substitute mains powered units conventionally used for greenhouse cooling – but consume only a fraction of the electricity. Because the fans respond to the amount of solar energy available, they speed up as the day gets hotter and shut down automatically at night when cooling is no longer needed. There is no need for expensive batteries to store electricity from the solar PV panels. Opubo Igobo, who completed an MSc in Product Design Innovation from Aston University, developed the electronic control circuit for the fan so that it achieves maximum air flow. The system was tested in the labs at Aston, before replication for use in Australia. The greenhouse has been used to grow valuable tomato crops for local markets. (July 2011)

External link to Seawater Greenhouse Ltd.

Employable Graduates; Exploitable Research