"The Apollo programme did not dream up new tools to get to the moon; they took the technologies they had to have, improved upon them and solved the problem. We can do the same for the transition to a low carbon energy system. Through a combination of available technologies, including Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), we have what we need to save our planet."

What is the vision of the research group?

Energy system transitions do not happen quickly or cheaply. Access to energy is the foundation upon which the rest of our society is built. Understanding how we can transition to a low carbon economy is a complex nexus of science, engineering, economics and policy. Delivering insight and understanding how these aspects can work together to deliver the energy system of the future is the unique focus of our Research Group.

Why is this important to focus on?

The world’s economy is underpinned by fossil fuels – between them, coal, oil and gas provide more than 85% of our energy, with renewable energy providing only 2%. It is therefore evident that fossil fuels will continue to play a major part in providing the world’s energy, and will likely contribute more than 50% beyond the end of the century.

However, it is now beyond doubt that the anthropogenic CO2 emissions associated with the unmitigated combustion of fossil fuels are changing the composition of the atmosphere, leading to dangerous climate change. If left unchecked, this will be very costly to our planet, in terms of ecosystem and species diversity, financial cost and human life.

It is therefore vitally important that we find, as soon as possible, a new way to sustainably exploit our planet's fossil and biomass energy resources, enabling us to provide affordable and reliable access to energy to the world’s rapidly growing population. One key technology that can solve this paradoxical challenge is carbon capture and storage (CCS). The deployment of CCS will enable us to transition to a low carbon society in an independent and low-cost manner whilst concurrently stimulating the economy and creating many thousands of jobs, and, through combination with bioenergy, BioEnergy CCS (BECCS) allows us to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, potentially reversing the effects of historic emissions or offsetting the emissions of hard-to-reach transport sources.

Aren’t fossil fuels running out?

No, not at all – there are vast amounts of fossil reserves left, both conventional and unconventional. It is the very extensive nature of this resource base that lends urgency to our work; it would be far, far too easy to continue down a “business as usual” pathway, without heed for the future. We are already seeing the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, and unless we reduce our CO2 emissions in a serious way very soon, this will only get worse.

Why does this matter right now?

This is, in some ways, simultaneously the hardest and easiest question to answer. It’s up there with “why does it matter at all?” For me, it matters because I think that we share the planet with many, many other species, and we really are only here for a short while. Right now, it’s like we’re being very poor house guests, and expecting the next guests – our children and grandchildren, in this context – to deal with the cost of tidying up. We’re valuing our own experience very highly and discounting very heavily the experience of those who will follow us. I think this is a personal perspective, however, and a less personal answer might be to consider that the earth system is highly complex, operating on non-linear time scales, with many – often poorly understood – feedback mechanisms contained therein. Therefore, the fact that we’re starting to observe consistent deviations from “normal climate” patterns in many different parts of the world (e.g., UK flooding, Californian droughts, etc.) is something of a harbinger of what is to come. This change poses a real existential threat to nation states. We have a relatively small, and ever shrinking window of opportunity to act and mitigate this, before we sleepwalk into a much less manageable and more costly paradigm of adaptation.

What is your overall goal?

Through the combination of underpinning science and engineering we aim to drive developments in clean fossil and bioenergy technologies. Through their combination with economics, we provide insight as to the value of these technologies to our society. By close engagement with industrial collaborators and policy makers, we aim to provide the evidence needed to drive real change in how we generate energy, reducing its cost to the consumer and to the environment.

How can I get involved?

We’d love to hear from you – please get in touch via twitter (@IC_CleanFab) or email k.welch@imperial.ac.uk and let us know what you think!