Swansea University Partners Tata Steel for Affordable Solar Energy

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Imagine a home whose four outer walls and roof are capable of capturing, storing and eventually releasing all the energy you need to meet your household needs with the potential to release the excess back into the grid. That's the vision of an ambitious project run by a consortium led by Tata Steel, at Swansea University here in the UK.

The Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovative Functional Industrial Coatings (SPECIFIC) has a total of £20 million pounds in funding, to create so-called ‘functional generating coatings' for both steel and glass, integrating them into the very fabrics of those materials. "The vision is to transform buildings into power stations," says Mr Kevin Bygate, Director of the SPECIFIC project. "It's a paradigm shift. Energy can be generated and used at the point of use."

Last October, the project received a £9.5 million grant from EPSRC, the UK agency responsible for dispensing funding research in engineering and the physical sciences and the Technology Strategy Board. Other commercial partners include BASF, Beckers, Akzo Nobel, glass maker Pilkington, Johnson Mathey and solar cell firm Dyesol. Other academic partners include Imperial College London, Bath and Strathclyde Universities.


While existing technology for capturing solar energy has focused on efficiency, the SPECIFIC project is targeting affordability. "The aim is to produce this on a very large-scale and very low cost," says Mr Bygate.

The project, which will be based at a dedicated innovation centre in Baglan, near Tata Steel's Port Talbot works in South Wales, and will have a total of 50 researchers, is already up and running and in its early research phase. The team hopes to move to the laboratory stage, where "proof of concept" – pieces of material, roughly the size of an A4 sheet of paper, will be produced within the next six months. Then on to the first stage of upscaling — a pilot line roughly 50 metres in length and 300 millimetres thick within the next 18 months, and a full-scale building demonstrator within the next three years. The project will run for a total of five years.

With some 4 billion square meters of roofing and facades in the UK, the research team believes the technology's capability is tremendous. The target is to supply 1/3 of the UK's renewable needs by 2020, at Western per capita energy rates. Longer-term, the technology will have application across the world, including in off-grid remote regions. "No matter where you are or what the climate is, this technology has potential," says Mr Bygate.

High-tech coatings are, of course, a part of every-day life, whether it's on the cars we drive or even in foods. "What we are examining are coatings which have a different sort of chemistry – capable of transforming photons into electricity or trapping heat," says Mr David Worsley, Director of research at SPECIFIC. "It's a fairly straight forward process but what we are looking to provide is the best combination of technology, which is not just about capturing energy but also releasing it in a controlled way."

A key factor in choosing the materials will be their sustainability and ubiquity. "Even in the research phase, we are only looking at materials which are relatively easily available," says Mr Worsley. "There is no point examining materials whose rarity would limit their production potential." At the same time, the team will develop a manufacturing process capable of commercialisation – high speed and low cost. "What we have is academia, government and industry working together," said Mr Bygate. "What Tata Steel is providing is the industrial skills of commercialisation and upscaling."

The project is one of a number that Tata Steel is involved in here in the UK – including a £10 million Photovolatic Accelerator Facility, and a Sustainable Building Envelope Centre, both also located in Wales.

Mr Bygate, who also heads business development at Tata Steel's Colors business here in the UK said the firm fit with Tata Steel's ambition of becoming one of the market leaders in environmental innovation. "The project stresses that steel is part of the sustainability story. There is no low carbon future without steel."


India Brand Equity Foundation, February 1, 2011