Developing a non-polluting fuel

Bioengineers are developing a non-polluting fuel to help lower carbon emissions.

Green car Environmental issues are as important than ever, and with "green collar" jobs becoming more commonplace in the engineering industry, you'll find many of our members working on projects such as developing environment-friendly fuels. 

As part of the IET community, you get the chance to network with these people, share ideas and possibly walk away from an event with new vigour to make a difference in your own sectors. We caught up with some specialists in the low carbon field, to see what positive changes they're already making.

Ben Goh works as a cleaner fossil engineer for E.ON [new window]. As part of his degree course, he did a 12-month work placement in E.ON's Combustion and Emissions Control Group. At the time (2001), there was a lot of activity in the area of co-firing biomass in coal-fired power stations to reduce carbon emissions and produce renewable energy.

Goh was involved in small-scale pilot trials at the combustion test facility, studying the impact of co-firing various biomass fuels and coal on the environmental performance of the power plant. In 2003 co-firing had become a widespread commercial application, and Goh joined E.ON full-time to work in this area. 

"Fuel-specific issues make bioenergy the most complex renewable technology to develop and deploy. There are plenty of potential pitfalls related to the technology, but the commercial and social aspects of biomass also need to be addressed," says Goh. "The work I have been involved in to-date has dealt with these issues as much as the hard engineering challenges, such as fuel handling and combustion. My hope is that it will lead to our limited biomass resource being used in the most effective way, in terms of costs, greenhouse gas reductions and reducing dependence on any single fuel."

The importance of bioenergy

Bioenergy can already make a real and sustainable contribution to our energy needs, using existing technology. However, there is always room for improvement, in terms of efficiency, flexibility or economic performance. Furthermore, biomass can provide other benefits, such as improving air, land and water quality, and diverting materials away from landfill.

"Society's needs, be they energy-related or otherwise, will undoubtedly change with time, and I know bioenergy can continue to play its part," Goh says.

What Goh loves the most about working in this field is the complexity of the topic, and the challenges he has to overcome.

"On the one hand, the diverse range of fuels and technologies mean you have to have an appreciation of a lot of different industries. You get to meet people and learn about areas that you'd never thought would be part of your job, from farming to shipping to petro-chemicals," he explains. "There's certainly never a dull moment. On the other hand, the complexity means that it is often misunderstood, which can hinder the development of the field and prevent the technology from being used to its full potential; this can be really frustrating."

Lowering energy pollution

Goh also highlights the importance of engineers in this area.

"Engineers have a unique way of approaching problems, which complements and augments the skills and abilities of other professions. I think the creativity and technical skills of a good engineer are absolutely essential in finding, assessing and refining solutions," he says.

Creating non-polluting fuels is a great way to start, but engineers are also working on other ways to lower energy pollution. Chris Walsh is a technical specialist at Cenex [new window], an organisation that promotes UK market development and competitiveness in low carbon and fuel cell technologies for transportation.

"Way back I did an engineering apprenticeship, then went to university to study mechanical engineering," he says. " I then decided to pursue an automotive career, consulting with engineers designing engines and power trains. I decided that it would be useful to use my skills in the environmental side of engineering as I was quite environmentally motivated, so I've moved through a few jobs, now deploying and assisting development of low carbon vehicles."

Having started a few years ago, Cenex has come a long way in developing and promoting the low carbon car. There are quite a few technologies that are in prototype stage and fully developed which have the ability to reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle. The definition of a low carbon car will change as engineers continue to make things more efficient, use alternative power sources, and generally green up our energy suppliers.

Sustainable engineering

These engineers have a real passion for their jobs, but of course, the best part of the job is seeing the work become a reality. Both Goh and Walsh are clear in stating that engineers play the most important role in this area.

"It's about as vital as it gets," says Walsh. "Pretty much everything around us is designed and developed by engineers. They are the ones trying to combat the environmental challenges. They'll solve the problems.

"They'll design and develop the technology of the future which will allow us to live in a more sustainable manner, so I think without engineers we'd really struggle to combat any of the challenges of climate change and carbon reduction."

If this is a sector that appeals to you, then find out more. Join the relevant Technical and professional network communities, attend events and meet likeminded members. As Walsh notes, this is a growing industry, and engineers can make a difference in a huge number of ways.

"This is a rapidly expanding area, and the reduction of energy consumption and carbon emissions will impact products across the board. There's a significant role for engineers to play in helping everything that we do become more sustainable," he concludes.