Gareth Mitchell: This is the official podcast of Imperial College London. And I’m Gareth Mitchell lecturer in Science Communication here at Imperial by day and presenter of the BBC’s technology programme Digital Planet by night. Welcome along to this the May edition of our podcast. And there’s a bit of a theme today for you too: students’ endeavour. In a moment a team of them has just returned from the Antarctic. But also this month, another group of students has just told a major energy company how to revolutionise the way that it sells power to its customers.

Philip Gruenewald: We presented some numbers to compare what it would cost to implement the system and in fact it turned out, when we calculated it, if you wanted to save one million tonnes of C02 with this approach it would actually make us £26m. And if you compare that to the cost of saving the same amount of carbon with wind farms that would cost over £20m.

GM: Yes, pretty much redefining the term student power I think there. And from power through the pylons to power from fuel cells. I’m in the workshop where students are toiling over a very green family of racing cars.

Alex Shea: What we’ve got already is a sports car to modify into a high performance electric vehicle. And we’re racing that 40,000 kilometres around the world, across six continents against five other vehicles in less than 80 days. So, I mean, very Jules Verne. We think this will be a massive media demonstration to the public that the technology is here, it’s viable and we can actually use it to lower our carbon emissions.

GM: And also this month, if you’re good, we might even throw some news headlines into the mix, including the brain scans that give early clues about the onset of Alzheimer’s. That’s all on this edition of the Imperial College podcast.

Journey to the bottom of the Earth – students reflect on Antarctic trip to see the effects of climate change

To start with then, sitting our here on the Queen’s Lawn, and if you know the South Kensington campus you’ll know it’s the centrepiece of the campus with the iconic Queen’s Tower towering literally above us in the sunshine here. There’s a bit of cloud coming over but it’s certainly a warmer environment than you were in a few weeks ago, Jeff Marlow of Earth Science and Engineering, doing an MPhil there. You’ve been to the Antarctic so how and why?

Jeff Marlow: How is quite a journey. We took several flights down to Ushuaia, which is the southern most city in the world, the tip of Argentina. And then we took a Russian academic vessel across the Drake Passage. And that was a two day voyage during which we encountered the largest storm of the season and everyone got sick. But once we finally made it we were on the Antarctic continent. And the idea was to gather 50 students from around the world as well as a number of academic and industry experts to discuss climate change and the challenges associated with climate change and how we may form some practical solutions in the future, coming out of the voyage.

GM: You were one of three from Imperial, weren’t you?

JM: That’s right. There was myself, Dave Whittleston and Ryan Cheong from the Medical School.

GM: What was your contribution to this discussion on climate change?

JM: The first few days it was sort of listening capacity. It was sort of overwhelming, and I don’t necessarily come from a background of climate change. But near the end we sort of formed groups. I was part of the interdependencies group. Our goal was to look at how many things interact with climate change. Like water supplies, food supplies, business interests and human interests and how that all interacts. So going forward we’re hoping to submit some papers to academic journals and form a cult-action kind of to get people to look at all of these things and how they interact in the broader scheme of climate change.

GM: So now that you’re back I’m sure it’s work in progress. You’re chewing through all the notes that you took there, all the discussions that you had. But are you getting some interim idea of what these recommendations are that you’re going to be making and then ultimately publishing?

JM: Yeah. We’re hoping to look sort of at a certain type of region. So we’re looking in Africa, at countries with large energy resources and are open to a more formative interaction from us in the future.

GM: So it’s part of making sure that as they develop and obviously their needs for things like power grow that they adopt technologies in a more sustainable way?

JM: That’s certainly most of it, yes. Getting all the information from the global community of scientists in there with the development workers and local business, is sort of the goal.

GM: So this was a conference made up; obviously you were from Imperial, but these were students then from all over the world. So why did they hand this over to you? I mean they could have had some huge ministerial conference, as they often do. One of these big UN summits or something. Why farm it out to a load of students on a boat in Antarctica?

JM: That is a good question. We were asking that ourselves for a few of the days. But I think it’s sort of getting an interdisciplinary group was much of the goal, and a geographically disperse group. They did also have a number of academic experts who sort of help lead or contextualise the dialogue and that sort of helped get everyone together and thinking creatively along the same lines.

GM: So focus the mind. But I suppose the big advantage was because you’re not a load of politicians you didn’t have politics getting in the way. You just got straight down to the science, the evidence and in the end had some meaningful discussions?

JM: That’s right, certainly. I think we largely came from a more academic, environmentalist sort of mindset. And accommodating that within a business and government framework is probably a good model for future developments. The whole expedition was sponsored by BP. Having that business influence and working within that business structure I think is important. Because it’s such a large part of the modern world and greenhouse gas emissions right now.

GM: So they brought an element of the real world into it rather than it just being an academic discussion. So tell me about Antarctica then. Hopefully you saw a little bit of Antarctica in amongst all these fevered discussions.

JM: Certainly. We were there for four days. It is really the last great wilderness on Earth. The mountains are just capped with the purest white ice you can imagine. The seas are completely clear. There are seals and penguins and whales frolicking about and coming right up to the boat. They have a rule actually if your at Antarctica, in terms of tourism, where you are not allowed to go within metres of the penguins. In both of our situations encountering penguins this was impossible. Even if you just stood there they would come up right next to you. So certainly a wildlife-rich experience.

GM: And obviously a place that’s going to focus the mind on the task in-hand, you know, really trying to nail climate change. Having come back from there, how much of an impact has this incredible final frontier, the last wilderness, how much of an impact has it made on you as you think about the problems that the planet faces?

JM: I think it made a really profound and lasting impact. Sort of seeing that nature in its pure state really is very vulnerable. It’s both powerful, with the freezing temperatures and mountains of ice around you, but at the same time it is very fragile. And even the slightest rise in global temperature could cause much of that ice to melt, which would be a disaster. So for myself I think incorporating climate change projects into my work is going to be a large goal. As well as tending to my own backyard and making sure that I’m personally acting in as an environmentally friendly way as I can.

GM: Well, Jeff Marlow, welcome back. In a moment on this podcast another group of students. These ones haven’t been to Antarctica but they have been to an energy company to tell them how to restructure their pricing structure. That’s after this roundup of news from around Imperial College.

Headlines from around the College

People who go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease may have worn out part of the brain responsible for memory if they have a particular genetic variant. That finding comes from brain scans of healthy young adults conducted by researchers from Imperial’s division of Neurosciences and Mental Health teaming up with colleagues at Oxford University. The team was interested in the link between a genetic variant carried by about a quarter of the population and the eventual onset of Alzheimer’s. This study, in 36 volunteers, half with the genetic variant and the other half without, gives a valuable initial clue.

The brain scans, carried out at Oxford, focused on the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory. Carriers of the genetic variant tended to have increased activity in the hippocampus even at rest. And that suggests that a contributory factor to eventual Alzheimer’s could be the overactive hippocampus simply wearing itself out over time. Though it’s relatively unusual for people with the variant to go on to develop Alzheimer’s this work does give an intriguing glimpse at early signs of the disease in younger people long before actual symptoms ever appear.

And also in the news this month, Imperial has won University Challenge. No, not that University Challenge but the University Caterers Organisation Chefs’ Challenge. It’s a yearly cooking competition where 12 teams of university chefs go head-to-head, or spread-to-spread should I say, battling it out for supremacy in the kitchen. The Imperial team won the Gold Award for a four course creation comprising pan fried foie gras, smoked pancetta and baby pea risotto with seared scallops, fillet of monkfish with wild mushrooms. And then, finally, chocolate fondant for dessert. And the icing on the cake was a prize that included swish hotel accommodation, dinner at a top restaurant and a cash prize. So chefs of Imperial College we salute you.

And you can catch up as ever with more news and events from in and around Imperial College via our Press Office website. And that’s at

Energy Challenge winners on how they are making energy efficiency an attractive option for power companies and their customers

Well, right now I’m sitting in a room with four very happy looking chappies. That’s because they’ve won quite a big competition. They’re all students on the MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures here at Imperial. And the competition is the npower Energy Challenge. So, Alan Whitaker, let’s start with you. What’s this competition that you’ve just won?

Alan Whitaker: Well, it was a student competition and it had entrants from universities all over the UK, and some in Germany as well. And the challenge was to present to the board of npower our ideas on what a power company should do in response to climate change.

GM: And what was your idea?

AW: Okay, well, our idea was basically to look not just at the supply side as in how can we supply energy using clean sources like wind and that kind of thing. It was actually more to focus on energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is actually the only way that you can save carbon dioxide and actually make money at the same time. Because if you use less energy it costs you less. So that’s basically what we focused on. And we were basically presenting an idea which would allow power companies to take advantage of those efficiency gains in other people’s houses. Because at the moment, if people make efficiency improvements in their home power companies actually lose out because they provide less energy. So we were presenting a new way of supplying energy to those customers that would allow the power company to take advantage of the cost savings.

GM: So a win-win situation then?

AW: Exactly, yeah.

GM: So you did the presentation as a group of four. So the second of this marvellous group of people, Philipp Gruenewald, what did you bring to the presentation? What was your role?

Philip Gruenewald: We tried to explain to them how they could bring together what Alan just explained. The idea that customers save energy and they actually make money out of it. And what we suggested was that they enter into a contract with their customers; charge them a monthly flat rate. And then the question is, of course, how you stop the customers from taking advantage of that and just use as much energy as they like. So the presentation was very much around suggesting to them how this relationship could work effectively. And what we suggested was that they would assess the properties and make investments to save energy. Because they need to provide less energy their costs go down, and the saving could be shared between customers and the power company. So the question remains, how do you stop the customers from using more energy being on a flat rate. And really that was Andy’s ideas that came in there. The marketing ideas.

GM: Beautifully cued up there. That brings us very seamlessly on to Andy Hadland, the third member of the Fabulous Four. So what was the marketing spin on all this?

Andy Hadland: Well, we tried to look at other industries and see what they had that were successful schemes. So we borrowed from three. We used mobile phones. Because they have different tariffs that are tailored to different customer profiles. Because some people would be really just concerned about the cheapest rate. They don’t really care about saving the planet they just want to spend as little money as possible. Whereas other people are really eco-friendly and they want to get solar panels in, they want to have the works.

So we’re kind of offering a mobile phone style tariff structure that means there’s something right for everyone. That seemed to encourage people to take up the scheme. But to encourage them to save energy we invented Carbon Points, which work in a similar way to Nectar Points. So if a customer uses less energy then they are awarded Carbon Points which can be stored up. And then these can be used to purchase further energy efficient additions to the home through retailers like Comet.

GM: So it’s a bit like that Carbon Trading Scheme that we already have between different countries then isn’t it? So you have a quota of carbon that you can use and if you don’t use it then you get credits against that.

AH: To an extent. It’s a simplified version that is really easy to understand. If they save energy they get “x” carbon points. It’s quite a simple way of doing it, basically. And then they can spend it on whatever they want.

PG: What is nice about these Carbon Points is it’s something positive. People don’t really associate with kilowatt hours. Nobody really cares how much kilowatt hours they use. And equally, the money we spend on energy doesn’t really affect most people. Whereas if you have something positive that you can save up towards, like Carbon Points, there might be some encouragement. The other thing that was very important is to stop people overusing energy. If they achieve a certain quota of Carbon Points in a year we could offer them a discount for the second year so their bills actually go down. And we know from car insurance that people go a long way to get these no claims discounts. So the idea that you clock up Carbon Points and by the end of the year that gives you a reward or a discount. Not only does that save people money but, of course, it creates a loyalty with the brand. And the longer you can keep a customer the better your commercial outlook.

GM: Now, this being an exercise I guess you haven’t had a chance to run it past energy consumers but because you did this presentation as a role play, you actually got one of your team, the fourth member here, Gaurav Monga, to be the consumer. So you kind of came blasting into this presentation at some point and started asking these guys some very tough questions, didn’t you?

Gaurav Monga: Yes, that was one of the big parts of the presentation was when three of my other colleagues, they started on stage and everyone thought only three of us were presenting and the other person either ran away or was too scared to present. And I was in the crowd and I just entered the presentation around the third minute when Alan finishes his long entrance. Then I basically come as a sceptical customer who doesn’t really realise what energy services mean. And I question each of my colleagues on how and why should a customer change to an energy services company. And this is really important because if they are saving money it will give them more incentive to actually work on this idea and actually be part of the energy services company as a long term plan. So I thought that was the most important for customers.

GM: So the character you cast for yourself in this very theatrical presentation was just a customer saying, look guys, why should I care about this? Why would I want to sign up to these services? It’s all a bit confusing, what’s going on? That kind of thing was it?

Gaurav: Well, the way I started was that I was a typical British customer. And starting on my phone I basically said that all we need is basically some light, some warmth and a jolly good deal. And that’s what basically describes it.

AH: My phone goes off in the middle of the presentation and then Gaurav comes in. That’s where it comes from. And then after Gaurav says that’s what he wants, light, warmth and heat, I say, well, energy services can give you that and they can be cheaper too. But Alan doesn’t really like that.

AW: I took the role of a pragmatic financial controller within npower. At the early stages of the presentation I would be asking, wow, wow, cheaper? How can that be right? How are we going to make any money? Then that would be up to Andy or Phil to answer that question and sort of explain the concept.

GM: If I was a board member on npower I might say this all sounds very well but the whole structure seems quite complicated. Bringing in this flat rate system and all this thing about your carbon credits we’re going to give you. Just implementing that across a huge energy utility, that’s no mean feat. It’s going to cost us a lot of money.

PG: What is crucially different about this energy services approach to most other ideas that are about to save carbon at the moment is actually it costs money upfront but in the long run it saves money. Because we’re talking about energy saving. We’re talking about cost saving. And we presented some numbers to compare what it would cost to implement the system and in fact it turned out, when we calculated it, if you wanted to save one million tonnes of C02 with this approach it would actually make us £26m. And if you compare that to the cost of saving the same amount of carbon with wind farms, that would cost over £20m. So, yes, there’s an upfront cost but if you look at it over a certain period of years it is financially very attractive to companies.

Gaurav: Actually this message was further amplified in particular for the UK. Because if you look at the UK housing stock they’re on 25 million homes and more than half of them are quite old and they need insulation. They need these kind of facilities in place so therefore you need some solutions very quickly.

AH: Also, one other point is that that doesn’t take into account carbon credits you can get. You mentioned the UETS Carbon Trading Scheme. If npower can take advantage of these carbon credits and prove they’ve save them, they can get all the money on top. So there’s even more money to be made, basically.

GM: Okay, well it obviously convinced the board. They’ve awarded you this prize. You’ve won the competition. So what have you actually won?

AW: We won about £10,000.00 which was spread between the team and the department that we come from. And it’s up to our professor ultimately, but we want to have some input on how that would be spent. So we’ve had a few ideas. Phil’s got one idea which he might want to discuss.

GM: What’s that then Phil?

PG: Well, one thing that has been fantastic about this Sustainable Energy Futures course was that we have a very varied group of students here. And I want to actually maintain contact with these people for future years. So the idea is to put the money into a fund to begin an alumni for the course. And alumni network.

GM: Congratulations to you all. Fantastic. Well done and all that. I hope you spend the money wisely.

Four very happy chappies there. And as I was leaving that interview one of them couldn’t help whispering in my ear: "By the way, we beat Oxford and Cambridge". And he took quite a lot of satisfaction from that.

Student Racing Green team on the challenge of building and driving fuel cell powered racing cars

Okay, I’ve ended up now to finish this podcast in the basement of the Mechanical Engineering building in this fantastic workshop here. And it’s the home of Imperial Racing Green. One of the guys here is Billy Wu. Billy, what is Imperial Racing Green? Something to do with racing and being green I guess.

Billy Wu: Yes, it is. Imperial Racing Green is an undergraduate project in Imperial and it involves about 100 undergraduate students from eight engineering departments who design, make and race zero emission fuel cell vehicles. The reason we’re doing this is to highlight the whole issue of greener automotive technology. Doing this through motorsport hopefully we can get a bit more attention.

GM: And this isn’t just some kind of drawing board or AutoCAD, to put it into the 21st Century context, kind of exercise. I mean this is actually building full-on racing cars, isn’t it?

BW: Oh, yes, definitely. We’ve already made two really successful vehicles and the one we’ve got at the moment, this is IRG02, and it’s a go-kart size vehicle and it can go about 45 miles an hour top speed. This raced in Rotterdam last year in the Formula Zero Championship, which is the world’s first zero emission race series. And we came third overall, which is quite good. But we were easily the most reliable vehicle there.

GM: And for our dear podcast listeners who can’t actually see this car, you’ve already mentioned it’s about the size of a go-kart. But not just any old go-kart. It’s fairly sizeable. It’s pretty much the same proportions of those really serious go-karts you see on those tracks you can go and hire out at the weekend. Tell us a bit more about what we can see. I mean obviously it’s got car attributes on like wheels and a steering wheel. It’s a pretty mean looking piece of kit so just tell me more.

BW: Basically, we’ve got this massive fuel cell on the back. That turns hydrogen into electricity which we feed into two electric motors at the back and they basically make the car go. And we’ve also got supercapacitors to help give us a better acceleration for the vehicle.

GM: So supercapacitors, a capacitor being a device that stores electricity, basically, you know, momentarily I guess. Not quite like a battery but it’ll store some charge for as long as you need it. So how does that help to assist the vehicle?

BW: Basically, the fuel cell provides us with a nice average power. But we can put that into the supercapacitors and when we need that extra acceleration, like at the beginning of the race, we can just use the energy in the supercaps to give us that boost.

GM: So it’s a supercapacitor not quite a flux capacitor yet. That’s when you can do time travel Racing Green in about 100 years’ time. Let’s get more of a technical perspective now from Aaron who is also with the team here. Aaron Quinquela, can you give me a quick introductory lecture on how fuel cells work please.

Aaron Quinquela: Yeah, very quickly. The fuel cells actually take the hydrogen and pass them through the layers of electrolyte inside. And through a nice chemical reaction we get out electricity and nice clean water. Unfortunately, as with all electronic things, it can’t just do it by itself. So we use the balancer plant, which is a fairly complex control system, to keep everything running at the right temperature, keep everything running at optimum efficiency. It’s the heart of the machine. Without it, it wouldn’t do anything. So you’ve got a basic chemical reaction making the power and then the very complicated control making it work.

GM: That’s the whole point, I suppose, of doing this to show that this has now moved out of the lab. Here you’re showing that you can have it in a portable context and delivering enough power, and reliably enough, to power a car like this.

AQ: Yeah, that is one of our main aims to show that this technology is actually viable in a mobile environment. One of our biggest issues in fact is the fact that there aren’t many components out there which are built for moving applications. Such as the fuel cell we use in RG02 is meant to be sitting on a workbench powering a building. But we take it round a track through very harsh environments and it still works. Very successful in our aim of proving that this technology works in a vehicle.

GM: Okay, so let’s talk about your next vehicle. Because that’s sitting here in the workshop next to the existing go-kart that we’ve just been describing. This vehicle is still being built. At the moment it’s a frame really. It’s a chassis. There’s already a certain amount of electronics wired on to it. But still very much in its early stages though.

AQ: This vehicle is kind of going in two stages. This year it’s being very battery heavy with a small fuel cell as well. We aim the car to be quite a lot quicker than the go-kart so we want the batteries for long lasting, high power. But from next year, actually, designing and building our own fuel cell balancer plant with some fuel cells supplied by an American company. We aim the car next year to be very quick. Very quick indeed.

GM: Alex Shea is here and Alex you’re dead excited because later this year, I think in December, you’re going to be part of a team embarking on an incredible round the world adventure, aren’t you, so just tell us a bit about that?

Alex Shea: Absolutely. What we’ve got already is a sports car company, Radical Sportscars, who have given us a £50,000.00 sports car to modify into a high performance electric vehicle. And we’re racing that 40,000 kilometres around the world, across six continents against five other vehicles in less than 80 days. So, I mean, very Jules Verne. Aaron is involved and there’s a number of other people from Racing Green who are involved. And we think this will be a massive media demonstration to the public that the technology is here. It’s viable and we can actually use it to lower our carbon emissions and go towards more sustainable transport solutions.

GM: Because when you say going around the world, earlier on you were showing me a map and it shows a journey that basically starts in Copenhagen and works its way round a fair bit of Europe. But, for instance, we won’t go through the whole route here in this interview, but you’re going right across South America so that includes going across the Andes, for instance.

AS: It does, yeah. The highest point we go to is over 4,200 metres which is above La Paz and then we descend into La Paz and Bolivia. So, as you can imagine, across South America you’ve got mountains, you’ve got cold, you’ve got the jungle as you go into Brazil. You’ve got a whole range of climates. So not only do we have to design the system to be able to go for 40,000 kilometres pretty much nonstop but also through crazy different terrains and climates.

GM: And this is in an electric car, an existing car you’re going to modify to be electric powered. Will this be fuel cell as well?

AS: No. Initially it was going to be fuel cell. We thought it would be a great way to be stopped at the border carrying lots of hydrogen around. So we thought stay away from hydrogen, stay away from fuel cells and we’re just making it pure electric. But it makes it simpler than balancing hydrogen as well. We thought that’s the most sustainable and endurable solution for this application.

GM: This is, I guess, pretty important for Imperial then, you know, showing that one of the many things that goes on here is a pretty solid commitment to green technology, green power, green energy, that kind of thing?

AS: Well, yeah, Imperial are very keen to promote this kind of thing. But they are also fully aware that this is a student led thing, as with Racing Green. The real energy from this comes from the students. They’re amazed, I’m amazed and everybody seems to be amazed at how much from the lower level of the University this kind of raw passion and commitment is going into these kind of things. So, yeah, Imperial are, I hope, proud but also very keen to get this going further.

GM: Well, how they fit in anything like eating or sleeping or even studying is quite beyond me. But they manage it somehow. Imperial’s Racing Green team in their workshop deep in the Mechanical Engineering building on our South Kensington campus. And there we shall leave it for this month. There’s more information about us on the Imperial Press Office website and on Facebook where we have a listeners’ group for this podcast. Just search for Imperial College podcast, funnily enough, to find us. The composer Oscar Buldum woke up one morning at his home in Turkey and composed a tune called Lila and then I woke up one morning a few months later and made it the theme tune for this programme. That’s the music you can hear in the background right now. Our final name check goes to the Science Communication Group and the Imperial College Press Office who co-produce this podcast. I’m Gareth Mitchell and thanks for listening. See you next month.