Global warming and the security of our energy supply are the two most significant challenges we face in the 21st century.
Almost 86% of the world's energy demand is met by fossil-based fuels and emissions from the combustion process are a growing threat to the environment and humankind.
While we strive to develop renewable technologies, there is an urgent need to improve the efficiency of fossil fuel use to minimise its impact. Biomass fuel, widely regarded as renewable, is combusted in the same way as fossil fuels: improvements in biomass energy efficiency are crucial as biomass has a significantly lower energy content than fossil fuels.
Today marks the official launch of CombGEN, a consortium of the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and Robert Gordon University, with the support of The Carnegie Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Its aim is to bring together the combustion and gasification engineering community and, through collaboration and the exchange of knowledge, support development of robust technologies to improve industrial systems of combustion and gasification.
One promising and sustainable option offering energy security is the production of synthetic gas (syngas), through the process of gasification of carbonaceous energy sources such as biomass, municipal waste, unconventional gas or coal deposits. CombGEN's goal is to develop more efficient technologies for maximising thermo-chemical processes of gasification and pyrolysis (the decomposition or transformation of a compound caused by heat) that lead to the production of valuable syngas and for combustion of biomass, conventional fuels and syngas.
Given the variable output of most renewables, dispatchable sources of generation (that can be ramped up or shut down in a relatively short period) will be needed far into the future. Most are likely to require ongoing combustion of fossil fuels and biomass. Minimising the emissions from these sources will remain a major challenge for power-intensive industries. Strategies to reduce emissions per unit of energy produced are urgently required.
The development of effective strategies will require powerful computational and experimental tools to calculate the benefits of adapting combustion and other processes. It is anticipated that volatile oil and natural gas prices, coupled with stringent environmental regulations and a growing concern about CO2 management, will contribute significantly to the growth of the gasification industries in Scotland and worldwide. World gasification capacity is projected to grow by more than 70% by 2015.
The Scottish Government is committed to cutting emission levels by 42% while internationally, the UN target is to reduce emissions by 18% by 2020. Both targets are set against the baseline of 1990 levels of emissions.
With the meter running to achieve such cuts, CombGEN hopes to accelerate the development of advanced technologies that will allow industry to make significant strides and deliver environmental, technological and economic impact.
We know there are hundreds of billions of tonnes of coal offshore on the UK Continental Shelf, including extensive seams off the east coast of Scotland. The Coal Authority has awarded some 20 conditional licences for underground coal gasification (UCG), all offshore. Recipients include Five-Quarter Energy Ltd, which has been awarded investment guarantees worth £1.1 billion by the UK Treasury.
The technology developed through CombGEN will provide a new technical solution to the challenges of underground coal gasification and this could potentially put Scottish UCG industries in a leading position globally, provide energy security and create high-tech jobs.
New emerging technologies could save about £19bn and contribute up to £34bn to GDP by 2050. Scottish universities have the ability to lead these developments.