Grid-scale energy storage and remote robotic control funded by new EPSRC grants

UCl Chemical Engineering student using a glovebox to make batteries

A Chemical Engineering PhD student examines a small battery inside a sealed glovebox. The glovebox is filled with inert gas, and samples can only be placed inside through an airlock.

UCL, along with partner institutions, has just been awarded two multi-million pound research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Split between researchers in the faculties of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Engineering Sciences and the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, the projects cover grid-scale energy storage and robotic teleoperation.

The grants are part of EPSRC’s strategy to drive growth through technological and scientific innovation, and in line with the ‘eight great technologies’ outlined by the Minister for Universities and Science. The winning bids were selected to extend existing capabilities, support cutting-edge science and foster collaboration between universities and industry.

Grid-scale storage

This vast cross-institutional project aims to establish a distributed national Centre for Grid Scale Storage, to develop new generations of energy storage technologies. It brings together 29 researchers at eight institutions. UCL’s element of the project, which spans the departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, totals £2.9 million in funding.

Battery test rig in UCL Chemistry

A battery testing rig shared between UCL Chemistry and UCL Chemical Engineering: characterising small scale batteries informs the design of better energy storage, for domestic and grid scale applications.

The UK is moving towards a low carbon energy sector. By 2020, 35-40% of electricity is expected to come from no-carbon sources; by 2030 the electricity sector should be largely emission free. But many environmentally friendly generation technologies cannot provide reliable generation all the time – the sun can stop shining, winds can cease, tides are by nature periodic. On top of this, nuclear generation must remain switched on all the time – it cannot be switched on and off to fill the gaps in renewable energy production.

Developing technologies which can efficiently store energy to smooth out the supply is therefore a pressing concern.

The grid-scale storage project will look at a range of technologies, aiming both to incrementally improve existing storage technologies (such as batteries and capacitors), as well as to make more radical innovations that will transform the way energy is stored and used, such as novel flow batteries and hybrid storage devices.

UCL’s element of the project will contribute primarily to the consortium’s work on battery storage technologies.

The group will build on previous work on the Energy Storage for Low Carbon Grid project, which brought together UCL and Imperial, and around £16 million in grants awarded in related areas to UCL’s three members of the consortium.

Key researchers:

Robotic teleoperation

Within the technology challenge of Robotics and Autonomous Systems, researchers at UCL receive an EPSRC grant of £2.4million to develop technologies for manipulating objects remotely. Here, the challenge is to build a system of robotic and computer interfaces to let humans touch, explore and manipulate structures far above and below normal human scales.

Drawing on a team from across UCL Computer Science, UCL Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture, this grant will combine existing UCL expertise across the individual sciences of Robotics and Autonomous Systems to produce results applicable to a broad range of industries.

Laparoscopy using robotic teleoperation for surgery - from Dr Stoyanov, UCL CMIC

Using robotic teleoperation for laparoscopic – ‘keyhole’ – surgery . Photo from Dr Stoyanov, UCL Centre for Medical Image Computing

From molecules to the aircraft scale, these technologies for telemanipulation will find applications in many fields, including healthcare, synthetic biology, advanced manufacturing, and beyond. Collaborations with industrial partners will help transfer these discoveries into advantages for UK businesses and consumers, supporting the UK’s industrial strategy.

At one end of the spectrum, the group will work on devices which allow operators to manipulate micro- and nano-scale objects as if they were holding and touching them in their hands, a technology which will be useful for a broad range of applications ranging from material science to microbiology and nanomedicine. For human scale interactions, the team will develop robotic healthcare tools, allowing medical interventions such as endoscopy, laparoscopy and ultrasound scans to be carried out remotely. On larger scales suitable for heavy industry and civil engineering, the team will develop new ways of controlling large robotic arms such as those needed for the remote inspection of difficult and hard to reach spaces.

Key researchers:

More photos are available at the UCL Mathematics and Physical Sciences Flickr page, made available under a Creative Commons licence.