The UK’s legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 remains world-leading, but the changes required of key sectors are substantial and the date by which such changes need implementing remain shrouded in uncertainty. A strategic approach, directed by senior leadership, offers the best chance of realising the significant economic and societal benefits on offer but decisions must be taken now to take full advantage of these opportunities. Dr Andrew Bowfield, from the Henry Royce Institute at The University of Manchester, calls for clearer leadership in defining the optimal path to net zero through the development of a Technology Roadmap, enabling policymakers and funders to align behind a national plan of action.
- A new report from The Henry Royce Institute identifies cross-sector degradation mechanisms affecting structural materials, concluding significant challenges to achieving net zero remain.
- Corrosion has been estimated to cost $2.5 Tn p/a globally.
- Interactions between degradation mechanisms will only increase as greater demands are placed upon key technologies in the pursuit of decarbonisation.
- Key recommendation is for a Technology Roadmap for degradation to guide RD&I and specify areas for investment.
Industry does not as yet possess a full understanding of the degradation mechanisms of the new technologies proposed in recent UK Government publications on net zero. For many low carbon technologies the degradation of structural materials presents significant and ongoing challenges which limit the performance, operational life, and sustainability of critical infrastructure and assets.
It was for these reasons that earlier this year The Henry Royce Institute commissioned a major landscaping exercise, published in July, entitled ‘degradation in structural materials for net zero’ which examined the impact of degradation on wind power generation, carbon capture and storage, nuclear fission, transportation and hydrogen production and usage. The report identified a number of priority areas for investment to provide a more comprehensive understanding of major, cross-sector degradation mechanisms. Addressing such challenges will lead to a more cost-effective path towards a low carbon economy by providing solutions applicable to multiple industries.
These five sectors will play a pivotal role in delivering net zero and align with the UK Government’s ten point plan. The overall aim of the report, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, was to identify the issues affecting structural materials and prioritise the research needed to improve the operational life of essential infrastructure. The report should be seen as an investment driver around which industry and academia can build collaborations and partnerships to provide the breakthroughs needed to deliver the 2050 target.
The study identified three significant cross-sector degradation mechanisms – corrosion, fatigue and creep. In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, the report also highlighted ‘aqueous corrosion fatigue and stress corrosion cracking, creep-fatigue, high temperature corrosion/oxidation and fatigue, stress assisted corrosion and oxidation mechanisms, and environmentally assisted creep crack growth’ as of growing importance which are the result of structural materials operating under increasingly challenging conditions.
Areas for Investment
Six key areas for investment were identified which will provide cross-sector benefits:
- Design and manufacture – for improved sustainability, material degradation is as crucial at the design and manufacturing stages as it is throughout the operational life.
- Modelling and simulation – integration of simulation techniques and modelling is needed to solve complex materials degradation issues.
- Maintenance and inspection – improved and updated inspection and monitoring will support life extension activities and enable industry to adopt new materials and manufacturing methods.
- Characterisation and testing – improved fundamental understanding of the degradation mechanisms and how they interact is required.
- Knowledge and data management – more effective knowledge and data sharing structures, and incentives, are required to support development and implementation of new technologies.
- Leadership and policy – direction and clarity on strategy is paramount to provide focus and promote investment in new technologies.
Royce has decided the best way to take forward the recommendations made in the report is to develop business cases to justify investment and which would ultimately have a large economic impact. The priority focus areas are; 1) High Volume Compressors for Hydrogen and 2) Carbon Capture and Storage. The aim of the cases, which will be published in September 2021, is to further elucidate on the potential cost savings which can be produced by investment now.
The consultation which formed the basis of the degradation report confirmed that, across the wider materials community, a strong resolve exists to address the issues presented by the transition and unanimous recognition of the importance of structural material degradation to achieving this target. While there are numerous cross-sector opportunities available for UK industry and academia to exploit, what is missing is the final, strategic piece of the jigsaw.
The core recommendation of a Technology Roadmap, with an accompanying updated regulatory framework, will help to reduce the risk associated with new infrastructure and allow funding bodies to prioritise research, development and innovation programmes targeted at understanding, and ultimately controlling, degradation. Lessons can be learnt from the highly successful vaccine rollout in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has shown that senior leadership can be instrumental in breaking down barriers to progress. Collaboration between industry and academia with the government’s new National Technology Adviser via the National Science and Technology Council, and the use of other successful challenge based models such as the Faraday Battery Challenge, could be the way to implement the senior, strategic leadership the report calls for.
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