Alexandra Leonards explores the environmental technologies dominating the UK budget in 2021
More than a third of UK consumers say they’d prefer future technology to prioritise climate concerns over non-essential needs. With the government recently announcing plans for a £12 billion ‘green industrial revolution,’ the British public may be in luck.
The blueprint covers everything from clean energy, transport, nature, and technologies, with the purpose of achieving a net zero UK by 2050.
Carbon capture and storage
Carbon capture technology hit headlines last month when billionaire Tesla-owner Elon Musk promised a $100 million prize for whoever develops the “best” carbon capture innovation.
Musk reiterated his plans a few weeks ago, when he pledged to put forward what’s been described as the “largest incentive prize” in history as part of a four-year global competition to find a way of reducing carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The UK government is also keen to develop the technology, expressing an ambition for the UK to become a “world leader” in the carbon capture arena.
In order to meet its target of removing as much as 10MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, equivalent to taking four million cars off the road, the government is investing up to £1 billion to establish Carbon Capture, Usage & Storage (CCUS) in four industrial clusters. It aims to create what it calls ‘SuperPlaces’ in the North East, the Humber, North West, Scotland and Wales.
CCUS technology captures carbon dioxide from power generation, low carbon hydrogen production, and industrial processes, and stores it deep underneath the ground where it cannot enter the atmosphere.
The government says that while this tech will be necessary on a global scale, no country is currently leading in the market. It describes the North Sea as an “unrivalled asset” for the UK, which can be used to store captured carbon underneath the seabed.
The plan is to establish CCUS across two industrial clusters by the mid-2020s, rising to four sites by 2030. The government says that as well as being the starting point of a new carbon capture industry, these UK clusters could create 50,000 new jobs in the next nine years.
The first phase of a £100 million investment in brand-new greenhouse gas removals including Direct Air Capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 directly from the air, has already been launched.
Although carbon capture is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s arguably not without its faults. Some scientists say that DAC technology can use up a significant amount of energy. Research has shown that DAC tech could potentially use around a quarter of all global energy in 2100.
The government says that it recognises the “immature nature” of CCUS in the UK and that there are inherent risks that currently “the market is unable to price, or price efficiently.” To address this, it is working to develop an appropriate risk framework to underpin the technology’s deployment in this decade.
“That is why while the business models are being developed, through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) and Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge Fund (IDCF) we are providing £130 million of funding to support projects on front end project development activities such as planning, design, and preparation for project execution,” it says.
Green aerospace tech
Last month the government announced new grants worth £84 million as part of a strategy to develop a greener aerospace market that could see zero-emissions flights launched as early as 2023.
The funding is part of the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) programme, which is a government and industry investment project designed to grow the UK’s position in the civil aerospace market.
The government says that the technology it is supporting could one day be used for “taxi-like” aircraft that are set to revolutionise the aviation industry, with the potential for zero-emissions air travel in the next two years.
The grants have gone to three research and development projects that focus on green technology to power zero-emissions flights, using alternative energy sources of hydrogen or electricity.
Hydrogen, which can power aircraft whilst leaving only water as a by-product, is predicted to play a central role in the decarbonisation of aviation. According to Blue Bear Systems Research, which leads one of the three projects, hydrogen fuel-cell tech has been identified by many leaders in the aerospace market as one of the “most practical” ways of quickly removing carbon emissions from aviation.
Global engineering company GKN Aerospace will receive £54 million funding in total, half of which is pledged by the government, while the other half is matched internally and by industry investors. The money will be spent on developing a liquid hydrogen propulsion system for sub-regional aircraft.
The technology will first focus on significantly improving sub-regional aircraft hydrogen powered performance, in turn enabling applications on larger aircraft and longer journeys.
It works by converting liquid hydrogen into electricity inside a fuel cell system. The electricity it produces then powers the aircraft, whilst eliminating any CO2 emissions.
“Hydrogen-powered aircraft offer a clear route to keep the world connected, with dramatically cleaner skies,” says Russ Dunn, chief technology officer, GKN Aerospace, when the project was first announced last month. “The UK is at the forefront of this technology, and the H2GEAR project is an example of industry, academia and Government collaboration at its best. Working with our partners, and made possible by Government investment, GKN Aerospace will develop and industrialise the breakthrough technology to fly aircraft with zero CO2 emissions by the mid-2020s.”
GKN Aerospace says that the first hydrogen aircraft could be introduced into the market as early as 2026.
Partner in the project Intelligent Energy will develop leading lightweight fuel cell modules for the project over the next couple of years, creating the next generation of fuel cell tech.
The company even plans to open a state-of-the-art Gigafactory in the East Midlands, which would help position the region as a centre of hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing in the UK.
ZeoAvia plans to launch a 19-seat aircraft, also powered by hydrogen-electricity. It is receiving £12.3 million government funding to help the company scale up its zero-emissions engines.
The company says that customers can expect to fly “meaningful distances” on a completely zero-emissions aircraft as early as the end of 2023.
“This project is instrumental for delivering a market-ready hydrogen powered solution for 2023 that makes passenger-ready zero carbon aviation a reality,” says Val Miftakhov, chief executive, ZeroAvia. “It once again demonstrates the ‘Jet Zero’ ambition of the UK Government to take a leading role in making flight sustainable and we are proud that they have put their faith in us again to deliver another milestone for hydrogen-electric aviation.”
Blue Bear Systems Research’s INCEPTION consortium, is receiving a £2.8 million government grant to develop a fully-electrified zero-emissions propulsion system for smaller aircraft used for travelling short distances – even within the same city.
The seven-strong consortium includes Dowty Propellers, electrified powertrain specialists Drive System Design, battery and fuel cell producer Ricardo, the University of Cambridge’s Whittle Laboratory, the University of Salford’s Acoustics Research Centre, and materials specialists M&I Materials.
As part of its green industrial revolution plans, the government has also pledged to completely end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. Although the sale of hybrid vehicles that can drive a significant distance with no carbon leaving the tailpipe will continue until 2035.
The government has said it is investing £1.3 billion to accelerate the roll out of charging infrastructure, targeting support on rapid charge points on motorways and major roads, and installing more on-street charge points near homes, with the aim of ensuring that electric vehicle charging is as easy and accessible as topping up petrol.
It has also said it will invest £20 million across trials of zero emission heavy goods vehicles, testing technologies at scale.
Earlier this month the government promised £20 million to support electric vehicle charging infrastructure and revealed that the On-Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme will continue for an additional year. The money will cover the installation of around 4,000 new charge points.
"From Cumbria to Cornwall, drivers across the country should benefit from the electric vehicle revolution we're seeing right now," says Grant Shapps, transport secretary, in a letter to local councils.
But a report by think tank Policy Exchange warns that the car charge roll-out must happen five times quicker, before the 2030 ban comes into play.
The research suggests that the UK will need 400,000 public chargers by 2030, and that installations will need to move from current levels of 7,000 a year to 35,000.
"Without a big increase in the number of charge points right across the UK, certain parts of the country risk getting left behind as 2030 approaches,” says Rod Dennis, RAC motoring group spokesperson. “Everyone remembers what happened when broadband started to be rolled out and some areas were left with poor connections.
He adds: "It would be a major policy failure if something similar happened in the next few years with communities missing out on good charging provision."
The government certainly promises an exciting year ahead for the green technology market. So it will be interesting to see how rapid and successful the development of these new technologies will be over the coming months.
What are this year’s green tech frontrunners?
Alexandra Leonards explores the environmental technologies dominating the UK budget in 2021