An innovative £10 million research project, led by the University of Strathclyde, has been set up to investigate the potential of harnessing offshore wind and marine renewable energy to produce zero-carbon hydrogen and ammonia fuels.
The multi-disciplinary Ocean-REFuel: Ocean Renewable Energy Fuels project will explore ways of converting ocean energy into fuels for use in heating, energy storage and difficult to decarbonise transport applications.
The news comes as the UK prepares to host COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, in Glasgow and the consortium includes world-leading research teams from the Universities of Nottingham, Cardiff, Newcastle and Imperial College London.
The UK government has the ambition for offshore wind to produce more than enough electricity to power every home in the country by 2030, based on current electricity usage, but there remains extremely large ocean energy potential which can never be fully utilised by the electricity network.
The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, industry, and the partner universities, who have also pledged a total of nine linked PhD studentships.
Renewable electricity has been a remarkable success over the past 20 years, but the same cannot be said for other energy uses, in particular heat, heavy transport vehicles and aviation.
New technologies and systems need to be developed to avert the worst consequences of climate change and the Ocean-REFuel project will directly address challenges associated with energy storage, renewable heat and the decarbonisation of transport such as road, marine and aviation.
Jim McDonald, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Strathclyde and president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “We are delighted to be awarded the Ocean-REFuel project and to bring together this formidable cross-UK team to lead the way for future hydrogen production from an almost boundless sustainable offshore resource.
“The University of Strathclyde is one of the country’s leading energy research institutions and addresses the challenges of the energy transition. I believe this exciting opportunity will enable the UK to undertake vital research into ocean renewable energy and establish it as a pioneer in the field”.
Renewable energy technologies such as wind are impacted by intermittency and production issues and this project will explore storage solutions, such as hydrogen and ammonia, that can help manage the issue of intermittent supply, according to the University of Strathclyde.
Like electricity, hydrogen is an energy carrier and can be produced from a variety of sources including seawater and used as a source of energy or fuel.
It could also allow the stored energy to be fed back into the grid, and potentially channel renewable energy to difficult-to-decarbonise sectors such as renewable heat and transport, which account for more than 60% of UK energy demand.
A report in 2020 from the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult claimed that even if only offshore wind-to-hydrogen is considered, the exports to Europe alone could reach an annual value of up to £48 billion.
UK Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said: “The waters around the UK offer abundant prospects for clean energy. Ensuring that we can tap the full potential of our natural resources will be vital in meeting our bold climate change commitments.
“As shown through our world-leading offshore wind sector, we are not only capitalising on the clean energy potential around our coastline but also the opportunities for investment, jobs creation and regional growth. Projects like Ocean-REFuel are helping us fulfil that potential as we build back greener”.
The five-year collaboration, which involves 28 industrial partners, including BP, Scottish Power, National Grid, ENI along with the UK Health & Safety Executive, will also produce a blueprint for the first integrated ocean renewable fuel production facility.
Feargal Brennan, Ocean-REFuel project lead from the University of Strathclyde, said: “The Ocean-REFuel project has come at precisely the right time to build on the successes of offshore wind and has the potential to create a step-change in how we consider our whole energy system.
“The team will aim to use their vast experience to provide international thought-leadership on how to best develop this enormous energy potential in a safe, environmentally sensitive and responsible manner to provide maximum benefit to local communities whilst contributing in a major way to net-zero.
“The challenges are immense, and we are acutely aware of the importance of getting this right, given the backdrop of the climate emergency and the global consequences unless step changes can be achieved”.
The Ocean-REFuel project builds on EPSRC investment of more than £35 million into offshore wind power over the past decade, according to project partners.
Lucy Martin, deputy director for cross-council programmes at EPSRC, said: “The UK is the world’s largest producer of offshore wind energy but there is vast potential yet to be tapped into, as outlined in the Prime Minister’s plan to quadruple the amount we produce by 2030 including the opportunity to use offshore wind to help meet our green hydrogen production needs.
“By addressing key research challenges to the wider use of offshore wind energy and integrating it into green hydrogen production, the Ocean-REFuel project will help us to engineer the radical energy transition needed to deliver on our Net Zero commitment and also enhance the sustainability and resilience of the UK energy system”.