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Research Themes

Six research themes with significant potential for economic and societal benefit have been identified as follows;

  1. 1. Biomass/Biorefining for power generation and transport
  2. 2. Materials for energy
  3. 3. Combustion and Turbines
  4. 4. Electrochemical Storage
  5. 5. Supply chain management
  6. 6. Offshore Renewable Energy

Each of these research themes is elaborated in more detail below. Within each theme a number of potential projects have been identified. These projects would include short (1 year), medium (1-4 year) and long term (4-8 year) projects depending on the level of innovation and technology development required. The Shannon Energy Valley would provide industry with the opportunity to input into project selection and prioritisation.

Biomass/Biorefining for power generation and transport

Organic fuels (liquid or gaseous) will be required, in large quantities, for many decades to come for transport and power generation, while alternative sources of the numerous products, currently derived from oil, are also urgently required. Sustainable biomass feedstocks can address these needs. Researchers at UL and NUIG have a strong and proven track record in the areas of sustainable biomass and biorefining (thermochemical, microbial and enzymatic), with state-of-the-art laboratory facilities for bio-processing research and innovation. Generally, two biomass feedstock streams may be distinguished: 'dry' streams including energy crops, lignocellulosic waste and wood; and 'wet' streams comprising manure and animal residues, sludge and green waste. Selection and optimisation of the most suitable technology and reactor conditions is required for current and future biomass feedstocks. Dry streams are being targeted using thermal and chemical processing technologies, e.g. combustion, gasification and pyrolysis, while the wet streams are more suitable for microbial/enzymatic processing technologies. The biomass is used, not only to produce liquid and gaseous biofuels, but also to produce industrial bulk and specialty bio-based compounds, which today are predominantly derived from the refining of oil, and which form essential inputs for a wide range of major global industries from pharmaceuticals to paints and plastics.

The co-location of activities in bio-processing facilities, utilising next generation technologies and techniques for the conversion of organic materials into multiple high value bio-based products (e.g. butanol, lactic acid, lignin, methane and hydrogen) can extract the maximum value from locally produced biomass in a model that is completely sustainable from both an environmental and an economic point of view. The field represents a major opportunity for Ireland and the focus is to develop the next generation of technologies to support this key emerging economic sector.

Research topics include:

  • Hydrolysis technologies for conversion of feedstocks - chemical and enzymatic

  • Thermochemical technologies for conversion of feedstocks - including gasification and pyrolysis

  • Secondary conversion technologies to produce transport fuels and high-value products - chemical and enzymatic

UL and NUIG have strong expertise in the two primary biorefining platforms, i.e. chemical technologies and microbial/enzymatic technologies.

Materials for energy

Functional requirements of energy-related technologies have driven the development of novel materials (e.g. nickel superalloys for gas turbine engines). The next key development for fossil fuel plants, for example, is the adoption of ultra-supercritical (USC) plant (boiler throttle steam conditions in excess of 750 C), increasing efficiency from 37% to almost 50% and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 20%. These developments can be achieved through the adoption of novel materials, e.g. high-chrome ferritic steels and nickel alloys. However, in order to implement new material systems, the development of a predictive capability for materials performance to ensure reliability and safety, is a key concern. This research addresses a number of different aspects in materials development and modelling of importance to the development of improved efficiency and reliability in the energy industry.

Research topics include:

  • Materials and methods for increased efficiency of power generation plant

  • Materials for renewable energy structures and devices

  • Manufacturing of lightweight structures

There is a vast capability and experience at UL and NUIG of research into advanced materials and computational mechanics, including composite materials and lightweight alloys.

Combustion and Turbines

As regulations are imposing tighter emission limits on engine technologies and gas turbines. The use of lean premix technology is favoured for low-emission industrial gas turbines. For spark ignition engines, alteration of injection timing can significantly reduce emissions.

The range of compositions that lean premix technology can accommodate depends on turbine design. For example, the ignition time of the evolving fuel-air mixture inside the pre-mixer, from the point of injection to the combustion zone, needs to be much longer than the residence time to prevent hardware damage. To prevent operational problems in its compressor and combustor, a standard gas turbine needs adaptations to burn low-calorific syngas. Turbine technology research is required to develop such adaptations. In the same way that lean premixed combustion is favoured for stationary gas turbines operating on natural gas, a similar approach in terms of designing turbines for operating on syngas requires a better understanding of combustion dynamics under conditions relevant to industrial turbine mixing systems (i.e., lower temperatures and higher pressures: T<1000 K, 10

A logical first step in the maturation of the technology is to maintain a gas turbine in its original configuration, and to co-fire syngas with the natural gas, as this fuel mixture has a reduced impact on gas turbine operation and performance. For existing gas-fired electricity generation plants, it may be economically attractive to retrofit these with facilities for co-firing syngas in the gas turbine.

The behaviour of biomass in boilers is one of the main obstacles to co-firing. Lower heating value as well as fouling and corrosion arising from higher mineral content and composition are among the technical challenges identified. Adjustments to fuel and air intake and distribution are required to ensure efficient combustion and deployment of specialist coatings to boiler surfaces may be necessary to mitigate the corrosive effects of the mineral components.

In the case of propulsion engines, the chemistry and combustion behaviour of second generation biofuels differs significantly from that of mineral fuels such as diesel. Advanced engine timing cycles need to be developed in order to match engine performance to fuel chemistry.

Research topics include:

  • Fundamental measurements of ignition time of methane/syngas mixtures in gas turbines

  • Adaption and optimisation of gas turbines for combustion of biofuels

  • Adaption and optimisation of steam-cycle combustion systems

  • Development of low-emission combustion technologies for biofuels in compression ignition-engines

UL and NUIG have strong expertise in combustion chemistry, fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, heat transfer, and spark-ignition and compression-ignition engines. Furthermore, UL & NUIG have extensive experience of biomass combustion particularly using fluidised bed technology as well as experience in metallurgy & development of high temperature materials and coatings.

Electrochemical Storage

It is very important to have the ability to determine the available capacity, the state of charge (SOC) and the state of health (SOH) of a battery; this ensures that the battery has the available power for the system requirements. A battery is aged by charging and discharging cycles; this process degrades the chemical composition of the battery. An undercharged battery has sulphation and stratification effects that shorten the lifetime of the battery. Overcharging causes gassing which damages the electrolyte and plates. Overcharging and undercharging are avoided with precise knowledge of the ampere hour capacity, the SOC and SOH.

Due to the non-aqueous electrolyte and the possibility of metallic lithium formation, overcharging of lithium batteries must be rigorously prevented, both to avoid damage and for safety reasons. Charging of lithium batteries is therefore inherently more complex, requiring a protection circuit to limit the maximum voltage of each cell during charge. The cells are also susceptible to temperature extremes. Aging of lithium cells is a serious concern and the relationship of aging processes to charge and discharge regimes as well as temperature and other factors needs further investigation. This is particularly important for high power applications such as electric vehicles.

Energy density and cycle life are two of the most important issues in developing viable electric vehicle (EV) batteries. It is therefore very important to comprehensively characterise the performance characteristics of batteries and especially the effect of aging on the performance under different conditions of use. In particular, it is important to investigate the unique operational profiles to which EV batteries are exposed where relatively high charge and discharge rates, with complete recharges every cycle, are the norm.

Research topics include:

  • Physical changes involved in aging within the battery, and how these relate to charging, battery life and performance

  • Accurate determination of state of charge (SOC) and state of health (SOH) indicators, to include lithium batteries

UL and NUIG have strong expertise in electroanalytical chemistry, materials characterisation, microscopy, power electronics, electrical measurement and modelling.

Supply Chain Management

Clean and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are by their nature intermittent. In addition, the development of a sustainable biofuel and bioelectricity sector presents challenges in the reliable and sufficient supply of biomass feedstocks. Given constraints such as these, the challenge is how to design new supply chain systems for cost-effective renewable energy delivery to end consumers. There is an urgent need for solutions since, without a robust supply chain to deliver supplies, renewables will not be commercially viable.

To address the misalignment of supply and demand, it is necessary to adapt standard supply chain mechanisms to renewable energy systems, including forecasting, demand shaping, requirements planning, network design, and inventory and distribution management. To support these, sophisticated models are needed to develop systems that holistically address spatial, variable, and temporal challenges.

To develop a sustainable biofuel and bioelectricity sector, proper standardisation and certification procedures need to be developed and implemented to secure sustainable biomass production. In particular competition between production of food, preservation of forests and nature, and the use of land for biomass production should be avoided. Additionally, logistics and infrastructure issues must be addressed.

Research topics include:

  • Demand Side Management of electricity usage

  • Supply Chain Modelling

  • Evaluation of biomass feedstocks sources

  • Economic cost-benefit analysis, supply analysis, sustainable yields and economic optimality

  • Policy and legal research on investment priorities, subsidies and incentives linked to carbon trading, policy integration

  • Governance issues related to identification of stakeholders, property rights, community involvement, public goods, environmental stewardship

UL and NUIG have considerable experience in the area of supply chain management and supply chain modelling. UL has implemented a demonstration-scale Demand Side Management solution, and has developed a unique model of the Irish energy system, the first such model to include electricity, heat and transport. UL has expertise in Lean business optimisation, sustainable logistics and process modelling. Research is currently underway to analyse the viability of biomass feedstocks from the perspective of the Irish agricultural sector. NUIG has expertise in environmental economics, rural sustainability and policy, socio-economic & legal research.

Offshore Renewable Energy

Offshore renewable energy solutions, including offshore wind, wave and tidal energy, pose a number of additional challenges relative to their onshore counterparts. These solutions need to operate in often hostile environments. The monitoring, as well as the operation and maintenance, of offshore energy devices are costly, and technology solutions are needed to ensure the commercial feasibility of these activities.

To support the selection of suitable target sites for offshore devices, accurate modelling and survey capability is needed to allow assessment and analysis of critical factors, including interaction with the flow/wave regime, bathymetric influence on flow conditions, load calculations, etc. Furthermore, given the nature of offshore locations, it is important to obtain reliable site survey data to allow analysis of surface and sub-bottom conditions, sediment transport, anchoring/foundation assessments, cable routing assessments, etc. These can be facilitated through the development of ocean observation, using atmospheric and sub-sea photonic sensing technology, acoustics and radar measurements.

It is also an imperative to ensure the roll-out of offshore energy solutions do not have detrimental environmental impacts. Ecosystem-based environmental assessments and environmental monitoring will be necessary to ensure environmental protection.

Research topics include:

  • Assessment, modelling and analysis activities, with respect to the offshore energy devices themselves, as well as the locations and environment in which they will operate

  • Monitoring and protection of the offshore environment, with respect to offshore energy roll-out

  • Technologies for offshore renewable energy solutions