Imperial College London

Imperial pioneers innovation in clean energy sector

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Professor Nigel Brandon is pictured holding a prototype Ceres fuel cell component

Clean energy companies based on Imperial research have received significant recent investments and are helping develop a clean energy economy.

Ceres Power becomes UK’s most valuable cleantech company

Ceres Power, which was founded using Imperial research to develop fuel cells that can be used to generate low-carbon electricity, is now valued at over £600 million following a £38 million investment by Bosch, making it the UK’s most valuable cleantech company.

The company was started 19 years ago using research carried out by Professor Nigel Brandon, now Dean of Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering, and colleagues in the Department of Materials, building on previous funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Fuel cells consume substances such as natural gas and hydrogen, and produce electricity with low or zero carbon emissions depending on the fuel, and zero particulate emissions. The Ceres Power technology uses advanced materials, including a unique combination of a ceria electrolyte with a steel substrate, to provide a combination of high-efficiency, fuel flexibility and low cost. 

The cost helps make the fuels cells accessible for a variety of applications, including transport, data centres, and combined heat and power systems that enable homes and commercial premises to produce their own power, often more efficiently than power plants. The company has focused on natural gas fuelled applications to date, but recently revealed that its technology works well with hydrogen, a fuel source that can itself be produced from natural gas or renewably using solar or wind power.

Energy storage venture RFC Power receives seed funding from IP Group

While fuel cells can be used to produce electricity sustainably, batteries can help store the energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar farms until it is needed.

Imperial startup RFC Power has just received seed funding from IP Group to develop a new kind of flow battery that can be used for this and other applications, and manufactured more cheaply and sustainably than other flow batteries.

One of its major advantages is that by using chemical processes developed with research council funding by Professor Brandon and Dr Vladimir Yufit in the Department of Earch Science and Engineering, and Professor Anthony Kucernak and Dr Javier Rubio-Garcia in the Department of Chemistry, the batteries will use manganese, the cheap and widespread mineral found in an ordinary AA battery, rather than the rarer and more expensive vanadium commonly used in flow batteries. By reducing the cost of storage, the technology is expected to make the implementation of renewable energy more cost-effective.

“The opportunities provided by energy storage, and the need for it, are widely recognised. We need to bring forward technologies that are scalable, safe, durable and cost-effective. We believe that RFC’s approach delivers on that,” Professor Brandon said. ­­

Innovation journeys

Work by Professor Brandon, Professor Kucernak and other Imperial academics working in the electrochemistry space has yielded a pipeline of companies at varying levels of maturity, making complementary contributions to the clean energy landscape.

In 2016, Professor Kucernak helped launch Bramble Energy, which aims to produce fuel cells for vehicles. Due to the innovative combination of materials they use, Bramble’s fuel cells can be manufactured in the same factories used to manufacture printed circuit boards, avoiding the need for new and expensive dedicated manufacturing facilities.

Professor Kucernak also co-founded energy startup Sweetgen with Dr Daniel Malko and Dr Javier Rubio-Garcia, Sweetgen's CEO, all in the Department of Chemistry. The company will use wastewater to generate electricity using a device similar to a fuel cell.

Professors Brandon and Kucernak attribute the achievements of these companies to scientific advances. “All of these companies are underpinned by a scientific breakthrough. Either in materials - whether that’s a catalyst, or the ability to integrate different materials together into a device - or some novel chemistry,” said Professor Brandon.

Their advances have led to promising commercial applications, they say, because their deep understanding of the fundamental science has been coupled with a focus on practical applications. “What we’ve been able to do here at Imperial, enabled by research council support, is look ahead far enough to identify where the bottlenecks are, and identify the critical advances needed to open up commercial opportunities,” Professor Brandon said.

Professor Kucernak agrees. “A lot of it was actually driven by scientific interest, and the ability that we have at Imperial to study things in great detail. We identify what the practical problems are, and we have a really good fundamental understanding and tools that we can then apply to those sorts of problems, and that gives us the breakthroughs,” he said. “That goes back to what’s written in Imperial’s charter – not just doing fundamental things but serving the needs of society and industry.”

Commercialisation advice for academics

Asked to share their advice for academics considering commercialising their research for the first time, Professors Brandon and Kucernak strongly recommended it, though offered words of caution.

“I’ve certainly learnt a huge amount doing it. It’s actually very stimulating and you learn a lot. It’s not a second-class intellectual endeavour. I would look at it as part of a balanced portfolio of academic effort. If one can do this as part of one’s activities, I would highly recommend it,” said Professor Brandon.

“You really do need to test the value of your idea and seek advice from others. The College has a good ecosystem now for helping with that: departmental champions, the Enterprise Division, plenty of other academics who’ve been through this process. You need to be quite selective in which ideas you take forward - I seem to get about one good idea every ten years, so that seems to work for me.”

“You've got to continually re-evaluate your assumptions - other paths might open up during your journey and you have to be willing to change direction. It’s blunt, but being able to monetise things is important. There is also a right time to do it. Timing is everything in this,” added Professor Kucernak.

Professor Brandon agreed: “You can’t be too early, but you can’t be too late. If an area is really popular, then it’s probably too late already. Just like all areas of academic life, you have to be ahead of the curve, not on it.”

How businesses can access Imperial’s research

In addition to supporting its own startups, Imperial provides businesses and investors worldwide with access to the research and expertise of its academic community through collaborations, intellectual property licencing, investment opportunities, and consultancy, all facilitated by the College’s Enterprise Division.

One example is Galvanic Energy, a consultancy practice powered by Imperial Consultants. The practice provides industry, startups and investment firms involved in the clean energy sector with services such as analysis, insight, technology assessments and training, delivered by experts in the field from Imperial.

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David Silverman

David Silverman
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