News and events

EAS News

Collaborative project with University of Bahrain

Aston University has established a collaborative project with University of Bahrain to optimize the use of desalination with renewable energy sources including wind and solar. Though blessed with renewable energy resources, Bahrain currently obtains nearly all its water from desalination plants powered by fossil fuels. To facilitate the transition to sustainable desalination, researchers from both universities will investigate how to control desalination plants with fluctuating power inputs. This will entail studying and understanding the statistical qualities of the wind and solar power, and designing the plant accordingly. Professor Ian Nabney and Dr Philip Davies, of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, travelled to Bahrain for the signing of an agreement that will fund a PhD studentship and a number of planned collaborative activities on this topic. Read more [May 2017].

Tri-lateral project to provide desalination for the Jordan valley

The Sustainable Environment Research Group has embarked on a project to provide off-grid desalination for irrigation in the Jordan valley. Funded by the British Council, the project will bring together students from Israel, Palestine and the UK to exchange knowledge and expertise about state-of-the-art desalination systems. Such systems are badly needed by farmers who have gradually seen their wells become more and more saline due to over pumping and to decreased flow in the river Jordan. Aston students already developed a uniquely efficient solution based on the batch-reverse osmosis (RO) principle. The system runs from solar photovoltaic energy and minimizes the wastage of groundwater. Through this project, it is planned to improve and scale up the solution, extending expertise on how to design and install solar-powered desalination systems for inland areas. The project is in collaboration with the Arava Institute for Environmental Sciences, Israel, and the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group based in Ramallah. [May 2017].

Sri Lanka Project small
From left: Prof Bingu Ingirige (University of Huddersfield), Dr Asiri Karunawardena (Director General, NBRO), Mr S.S Miyanwala (Secretary, Ministry of Disaster Management), Dr Gayan Wedawatta (Aston University)

'Long-term sustainability of the post-disaster housing re-construction projects' research project launched in Sri Lanka

A research project headed by Dr Gayan Wedawatta from the ESM group at EAS was formally launched in Sri Lanka on 16th August. Chief Guest of the event was Mr S.S Miyanawala, Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management in Sri Lanka. The event was held at Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo and was attended by over 30 high-level invited delegates representing various government departments, private organisations, not-for-profit organisations and higher education institutes involved in post-disaster re-construction work in Sri Lanka. Dr Asiri Karunawardena; Director General of NBRO delivered the welcome address.

The project “Long-term sustainability of the post-disaster housing re-construction projects” is a collaboration between Aston University (PI: Dr Gayan Wedawatta), University of Huddersfield (CoI: Prof Bingu Ingirige) and the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) Sri Lanka (Mr Kishan Sugathapala and a research team from NBRO). The project is funded by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) Bowen Jenkins Fund. The project seeks to investigate the long-term performance of post-disaster housing reconstruction projects and make recommendations for effective, sustainable housing re-construction following natural disasters.

Mr Miyanawala; Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management in Sri Lanka welcomed the research initiative and urged the relevant stakeholders to support the initiative. He also highlighted the timeliness and policy/practice relevance of the current research initiative for the Sri Lankan context. Prof Bingu Ingirige delivered the key note address and Dr Wedawatta introduced the project and facilitated a panel discussion on issues related to sustainability of post-disaster housing. The panel discussion followed a number of invited speeches on post-disaster housing. Panel discussion and comments from the invitees provided valuable feedback on the planned research activities and enabled the project team to establish links with the relevant stakeholders. A special issue of the NBRO newsletter was issued in line with the project launch. 

Aston students draw expert interest with their solar-powered desalination rig

Aston students draw expert interest with their solar-powered desalination rig

Work by Aston students of mechanical engineering was presented at the conference on ‘Desalination for the Environment – Clean Energy and Water’, held in Rome, 22-26 May 2016. Abdel-Rahman Afifi, Saleem Javed, Fatimah Khatoon, and Gorve Kuldip have developed a solar-powered desalination machine that uses a unique double-acting batch reverse osmosis concept that is simple and cheap to build – but also offers excellent energy efficiency and produces a minimal waste stream.  Presented to an expert audience of international scientists, the study received positive feedback and suggestions on how to improve and implement it for use in the field. The technology will be used to purify brackish groundwater thus making it drinkable.

A number of presenters at the conference highlighted the growing need for brackish water desalination in territories including Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Groundwater resources are shared across these territories. Closing the conference, Professor Eilon Adar of Ben-Gurion University appealed to the audience to seize upon the cross-border water issues as an opportunity to promote peace and cooperation in the region. [May 2016]

International collaboration vital to solving global water crisis

International collaboration vital to solving global water crisis

A delegation from the Sustainable Environment Research Group participated in a dissemination workshop of the United Kingdom-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) project ‘Desalination powered by Sustainable Energy for Water and Food’, held at Anna University, Chennai, 9th April 2016. Philip Davies of Aston University inaugurated the workshop remarking that water scarcity is becoming a global crisis, linked closely to challenges of food and energy security. Desalination can offer a solution, and specific techniques to power desalination from renewable energy sources including ocean thermal energy, solar energy and bioenergy were discussed at the workshop. Abul Hossain (also of Aston) highlighted the potential for tri-generation systems for improving the energy efficiency of desalination. Delegates from both industry and academia were represented at the workshop. Mr Basha, Chief Technology Officer of WABAG, gave a comprehensive overview of issues in operating desalination plants. Charlie Paton of Seawater Greenhouse Ltd, London, explained the potential of evaporating water from seawater to reduce evapotranspiration and promote reforestation in arid areas. It was concluded that the wide variety of technologies under investigation, and the unsolved challenges relating to desalination, left much scope for continued research and development, in which international co-operation would pay a vital part.

The workshop was organized by Dr S Iniyan of the Institute for Energy Studies, Anna University, and enjoyed the participation of several prestigious Indian institutions, including National Institute of Ocean Technology and Department of Science and Technology. [April 2016]

Indian Government funds development of Aston Desalination Technology

An Indian Government funding agency has awarded a grant of 80 lakh rupees (£80000) to develop desalination technology invented at Aston. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) will fund a 36-month project at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), under its Water Technology Initiative. The project on ‘Solar-powered high-recovery desalination to provide clean water’, will be led by Dr Anurag Mudgal of PDPU, and is an outcome of the recent visit by Dr Mudgal to Aston University supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Newton Research Collaboration Programme. During his visit in 2015, Dr Mudgal collaborated with Dr Philip Davies of the Sustainable Environment Research Group. Together they undertook a study of the desalination technology and how it could be manufactured in rural India. As a result, a low-cost and compact version of the technology was designed. The new award by DST will enable this design to be developed as a prototype and trialed with brackish groundwater sources in the State of Gujarat. [Jan 2016]

Link to Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University: www.pdpu.ac.in

Link to Royal Academy of Engineering: www.raeng.org.uk

Coromandel supports EnergyHarvest

A major Indian fertiliser manufacturer has committed £50 000 to the EnergyHarvest Project led by Aston University. Coromandel will take advantage of pyroformerTM technology developed at Aston to supply biochar soil improver to Punjabi farmers. The pyroformer turns rice straw waste into biochar, which helps retain moisture and nutrients in soil, reducing the amount of expensive fertiliser used by farmers. Pyroformer can also power refrigeration for storage of agricultural produce.

EnergyHarvest has teamed up with the Soil Science Group at Punjab Agricultural University to trial the biochar and determine the best application rates for farmers to use. They will install a pyroformer machine at the university campus to demonstrate the technology powering a Vapour Absorption Refrigerator supplied by Thermax, under the direction of the Food Science Group also at Punjab Agricultural University.

Robert Berry, who leads the project at Aston, comments: ‘We are delighted to report that in December 2015 Coromandel agreed to provide approximately Rs. 45 Lakh from their Corporate Social Responsibility division.  This is a major milestone for EnergyHarvest as it represents the first commitment of Indian sourced funds to the project, and will allow the field trial and cold-chain demonstrator work to continue for the next 3 years.’ [Jan 16]

Web link to EnergyHarvest project: http://www.aston.ac.uk/eas/research/groups/ebri/projects/rural-india/

The big push

The Big Push

A 2-page article has appeared in the magazine Desalination & Water Reuse about work undertaken by three MEng undergraduates of Mechanical Engineering and Design at Aston University. The article, entitled ‘The Big Push’, describes development of a desalination system with substantial energy savings compared to the best current systems.  Chioma Alatta, Kim Nguyen and James Wayman spent 6 months developing the system from an initial concept suggested by their supervisor. Targeted at inland areas of arid developing countries where the groundwater is salty, the system is designed to use solar energy as the power source. It is also designed to recover the maximum amount of freshwater from the groundwater, thus minimising the volume of reject brine. ‘Dumping of brine to the environment poses a serious environmental hazard, prompting authorities to introduce legislation to halt such practice in areas such as India’s Thar desert’, says supervisor Philip Davies, ‘But if the brine volume is small enough, it can be evaporated to give just a salt residue having economic value’. (Dec 2015)

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.