Imperial College London

Three Imperial projects launched to decarbonise heating and cooling

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Photo of a thermostat set to 'warm'

Three Imperial College London initiatives are among 11 new UKRI-funded projects aimed at decarbonising the heating and cooling of buildings.

Heating is one of the largest contributors to the UK’s carbon emissions, with nearly 13 per cent of greenhouse gases a result of home heating using fossil fuels, a similar level to emissions from cars. With the UK set to experience hotter summers in the future, the carbon cost of cooling buildings will also continue to grow unless renewable methods of generating this energy are found.  

Today’s funding package will accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies that will both reduce emissions, and ensure people’s homes are warmer, greener and cheaper to run. Lord Callahan Minister for Climate Change

Now, Imperial researchers are helping change this picture by leading projects to investigate the technology and deployment of heat pumps and underground water storage, which could reduce the carbon emissions from heating and cooling buildings. 

Minister for Climate Change Lord Callanan said: “Almost a third of all UK carbon emissions come from heating our homes and addressing this is a vital part of eradicating our contribution to climate change by 2050. Today’s funding package will accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies that will both reduce emissions, and ensure people’s homes are warmer, greener and cheaper to run.

“Securing a lasting move away from fossil fuels to heat our homes will allow thousands of households and businesses to feel the benefits of projects that are breaking new ground and making our villages, towns and cities cleaner places to live and work.”

The projects are supported by a £14.6 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). 

Heat pumps to reduce emissions 

Led by Dr David TabordaDepartment of Civil and Environmental Engineering

UKRI funding: £1.5 million (EPSRC) 

The project, known as ‘SaFEGround - Sustainable, Flexible and Efficient Ground-source heating and cooling systems’, aims to reduce the emissions associated with heating and cooling by using heat pumps. Heat pumps are devices that can extract heat from sources like soil or the air with high efficiency, usually providing 3 or 4 units of heat for every unit of electricity used. They are more environmentally friendly than gas-fired boilers as they require only electricity to run.  

Dr Taborda said: “Heat pumps drawing energy from the ground can play an important role in the UK’s future low-carbon energy mix, and we will investigate how they can be coupled with our buildings and urban infrastructure to deliver low-carbon heating and cooling.” 

Underground water storage 

Led by Professor Matthew Jackson, Department of Earth Science and Engineering 

UKRI funding: £1.5 million (NERC) 

This project, known as ‘Aquifer thermal energy storage for decarbonisation of heating and cooling: Overcoming technical, economic and societal barriers to UK deployment’, aims to determine whether thermal energy storage technology could be used in UK buildings to pump water underground and store it in a porous rock mass called an aquifer. This would allow warm water to be stored to provide heating in winter, and cool water to be stored to provide cooling in the summer, while greatly reducing the energy required to heat and cool buildings.  

Professor Jackson said: “We will build on experience of installations in the Netherlands, which have shown that the technology recycles up to 90 per cent of the energy that would otherwise be wasted, and conduct field trials and experiments to determine the UK’s capacity for this technology.” 

Emerging materials for heat pumps 

Co-led by Professor Lesley CohenDepartment of Physics 

UKRI funding: £1.4 million (EPSRC) 

The project, known as ‘Barocaloric materials for zero-carbon heat pumps’, aims to replace the conventional technologies currently used to provide heating with an environmentally friendly and efficient alternative using barocaloric effects. Barocaloric effects take place when materials are subjected to changes in pressure, generating heat that can be used through heat pumps.  

It also aims to develop an economic and policy strategy to support the development and commercialisation of balocaloric heat pumps and enable the UK to become a world leader in this emerging technology.

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said: “With the heating and cooling of buildings accounting for a large share of the UK’s carbon emissions, there is a pressing need to develop sustainable new methods of generating and supplying energy for these purposes. 

“In the build-up to COP26, these new projects highlight how innovative new technologies and approaches will play a key role in reducing emissions and helping the UK to achieve its Net Zero goals.”

Image: Shutterstock

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Caroline Brogan
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Email: caroline.brogan@imperial.ac.uk

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