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How Engineers are Enabling Net-Zero Energy Initiatives

An interview about the importance of data access in sustainability research, along with key players

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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Associate editor Holden Galusha speaks with Bryan Davies, vice president of engineering solutions at Elsevier, about current innovations driving secure, sustainable energy, the importance of data in enabling engineers to thrive, and countries that are leading the way in net-zero energy research.

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Bryan Davies, VP of engineering solutions at Elsevier
Credit: Bryan Davies

Q: What are some of the current innovations that are driving sustainable energy?

A: We’re seeing many improvements in batteries, which is critical to the continued electrification of our infrastructure and will help countries continue to phase out oil use over the next decade. Currently, Lithium-ion batteries—which have a significant performance improvement over earlier batteries—are the most widely used, but there is still a need for alternative battery materials that are more abundant, can store even more energy, have better recharging properties, and have a longer lifespan. The latest innovations are being driven by breakthroughs in materials development and chemistry research. For example, we’re seeing scientists develop “organic” batteries made of wood, or employing different chemistries, such as sodium-ion batteries.

Incremental innovations happening in different processes throughout the energy and natural resources industries are also important. Small opportunities to boost sustainability and efficiency quickly add up to a cumulative impact. For example, replacing components like pumps and compressors with newer models across the supply chain can reduce the overall carbon footprint and ensure fewer supply interruptions. This kind of action can often slip under the radar but is incredibly important to reaching energy security and sustainability goals.

Q: What are some of the key challenges engineers are facing in developing these innovations?

A: Innovations in energy and natural resources are propelled by the discovery and application of scientific research. Engineers can’t build a safe and efficient wind farm, for example, without the latest accurate data on regional geology, shallow seismic data, seabed mobility and obstructions, and climate data such as windspeed. Equally, critical minerals cannot be recovered whilst minimizing impact on the environment if engineers can’t accurately locate deposits and understand rock types, mineral deposits, and existing geochemistry.

However, engineers are still forced to waste 80 percent of their time searching for and formatting relevant data, increasing the risk of overlooking important information and causing project delays. Data access issues make it difficult to find maps or information on a specific geographical area. This is compounded by inconsistent data formatting, which means data is not interoperable with internal systems.

Q: How might these challenges be overcome? 

A: Energy and natural resource companies that are serious about achieving security and sustainability goals should also be serious about upgrading their management of data. The growing volume of published research is promising, but to unlock actionable insights, the data infrastructure needs work. This starts with equipping scientists with domain-specific digital tools that give them access to both legacy and new data, along with third party and partner data. Prioritizing digital transformation projects that address failings in data collation, preparation, and presentation will ensure no information is missed and allow engineers to quickly access the information needed to reduce the environmental impact of future and ongoing projects.

Q: What are the most promising renewables that we should be investing in?

A: Wind energy has excellent conversion efficiency ranging from 40 percent to 50 percent—close to the maximum theoretical level of 59 percent. It requires little land and water use, which is increasingly important as more regions suffer drought conditions in the face of climate change. Wind farms also have circularity during the end-of-life phase, as many raw materials can be recycled to create a new site.

Geothermal energy is also hugely promising, although currently underexplored compared to wind. Unlike wind or solar, geothermal energy is always available, regardless of weather. It’s also immensely powerful; on average, a geothermal power plant produces energy for 8,600 hours a year, compared to 2,000 hours for solar farms. Geothermal plants also take up less space since most components are underground.

Q: According to Scopus, Elsevier’s abstract and citation database, the number of published papers related to net zero energy grew faster than all other research areas over the past two decades. How should today’s engineers approach sifting through and using that data to propel their work?

A: Sifting through data and revealing actionable insights relies on having the right technology. The volume of net zero research has gone beyond the point where humans can manually read it. It’s inevitable that important information will be missed. Engineers need search solutions that can harmonize proprietary data, public data, published data, and third-party data in the same ecosystem. Domain-specific technologies help engineers grapple with structured and unstructured data, for example, maps, well logs, photos, seismic profiles, and stratigraphic columns. It’s also important that companies follow shared data standards for any new data they produce so research can be discovered and used by others to propel projects elsewhere in the industry.

Q: Who are the leading nations driving research in sustainable, net zero energy? How do these nations translate research into actionable change that has an impact?

A: China’s research output has increased year on year since 2001, and the volume of its net zero publications overtook the US, the other key player in the space, in 2012. Energy challenges are global, so international collaboration between academia, governments, and corporations is an essential part of translating research into impact and making new technologies commercially viable. Collaboration enables shared learning and means nations are more likely to agree on and implement similar strategies for tackling issues. Equally, commercial viability is a key driver to widespread adoption of green technologies, such as biofuels and carbon capture. It’s hugely positive to see international collaboration in the field increase from 30 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2020. Switzerland and the Netherlands are leading the way in the share of co-publications, and China is rapidly catching up.

As vice president of engineering solutions, Bryan Davies oversees the management of Elsevier's engineering R&D information solutions portfolio, which includes geospatial intelligence tool Geofacets and substances and material database Knovel. Currently, much of this work involves helping companies along the path to net zero. Elsevier's solutions are being used to identify how current operations can be made more sustainable, as well as accelerate renewables projects. Bryan was previously an engineering officer in the British Navy before spending four years in the railway signaling industry designing railway control systems