Academia and industry: alliances for future sustainabilityhigh targets for making our environment cleaner, and this means not only lowering emissions but also making better use of our existing resources. Saving water, for example, has become a crucial issue, especially after last summer's droughts in Europe.
The academic world has a leading responsibility for preparing the next generation of researchers and professionals who will assist industry in achieving its business and climate-friendly goals.
Academia is vital if we are to train people with the right skills required by industry. At the same time, without industry, academia won’t have the real-world experience that it needs to remain at the cutting edge and meet its societal requirements.
Accordingly, over the many years that I worked in industry, I have supported many of my academic colleagues by hosting students and collaborating on new projects of interest to my company.
I am the technical director of iWAYS, a Horizon 2020 research project funded by the EU, which is an excellent example of one such interplay between research institutes and technical and non-technical partners.
The current project is a follow-up from two earlier initiatives, one (DREAM) mainly focused on the ceramic industry, and the second (ETEKINA) focused on heat pipe technology applied to the aluminium, steel and ceramic industries – both of which were extremely successful and both of which were ahead of the game because, with their focus on energy efficiency, we were responding to EU calls anticipating that energy efficiency would one day be critical.
What we are doing with the current iWAYS and the two projects that preceded it, is preparing ourselves (as Europeans) for the scenario we are living with today – faced with climate change and the war in Ukraine – so that we are efficient, use our resources wisely, and are able to make industry more sustainable, competitive and profitable.
We also hope that the iWAYS technology will help other countries struggling with water resources, especially developing countries.
For example, at Brunel University London, we developed the design of the iWAYS innovative Heat Pipe Condensing Economiser (HPCE) to recover heat, water and materials that otherwise would be treated as waste. The design could not have been achieved without the help of manufacturers such as Econotherm (partners in the project), who are helping to implement and produce the designs for the various ways it will be used.
Critically and additionally, we could not fully finalise these designs and plans without discussing them with our colleagues at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, who provide the necessary expertise in computer-based simulation and modelling.
Lastly, and by no means least, we also need to understand the requirements of our ultimate end-user companies. For iWAYS, we are involved with some very large and active companies such as Alufluor – a Swedish chemical industry working in a very controlled environment.
A loop of expertise
These potential end-user companies share their data with the university, we work on our designs and send this back to industry and to close the loop they then come back to us with their questions about what can and can’t be manufactured.
The technology not only helps companies save significant amounts of the water they use in their industrial processes but also helps to recover much of the heat they generate – ultimately helping them to strengthen not only their brand sustainability but also increasing their profitability.
Both of these are essential for a company like Alufluor to stay at the top of today’s competitive landscape – and achievable if we invest in innovation. But it’s not just about profitability and reputations: it is equally crucial for us (as European citizens) to have companies which are aiming to reduce their environmental impact and the European Commission funding programme is the means through which knowledge and innovation become something society in general can benefit from.
Of course, our work with each industry brings specific challenges. For example, with Keope (which operates in the ceramic sector) we work on their exhaust systems to prevent their equipment getting dirty.
But other challenges also have to be faced and these are resolved by the close working relationship between the partners, amongst which are: ITC (Research Association of the Ceramic Industry), TUBACEX – among the largest steel tube companies in the world – and with SIMAM, ICRA and IAMAS – experts in water treatment technologies.
Getting the message out
Notwithstanding all this amazing technology, one question that might be asked is “How do we tell decision-makers about this new technology so they can consider it in their plans to make our industries more sustainable?”
By disseminating the data through journal articles, we inform the broader scientific community of whatever advances iWAYS is making. The knowledge we produce is shared through open access portals – like all European projects. We also work with our project partner, ESCI, to disseminate the iWAYS project outcomes through various media outlets to help keep the public more widely informed.
If you look, for example, at what’s happening with Russian gas it is evident that we need to find alternative means to power our homes, cars and daily life. But at the same time we should make the most of the existing resources through improved efficiency – and this concept doesn’t only apply to heat efficiency; the same holds true for water.
Rather than waste it, we can convert the vapour in our systems back into water and recycle it back to the plant through closed process loops, thereby saving on water treatment plants, processes and transportation. Moreover, if the waste-water had entered the environment it would have caused appreciably more emissions to process it and get fresh water back to the plant.
We also hope to achieve the recycling of processed materials which are otherwise treated as waste. Waste materials have an economic value and by recovering them appropriately we can reduce the emissions and other contaminants produced during combustion.
In addition to all the above, we are also developing a digital Internet of Things platform that will provide much greater dynamic interaction with our end-users and which will also improve efficiency generally.
Promoting more sustainable societies
Our technology is quite flexible and evidence from the diverse industries to which it has already been applied – the ceramic, chemical and steel tube industries – indicates that it is basically applicable everywhere. For example: with Econotherm, we have even put a system in a church.
Why would a heat exchanger be placed in a church? Because they use a generator to produce electricity, which consumes gas. So by putting a heat exchanger at the back of the generator we can recover heat that is used to help heat the vast spaces within this church and save gas.
We are also heavily involved in the food industry, the forestry industry and the paper industry. All these industries consume fuels, create emissions – some industries more than others – and waste water.
Coordinating such a vast network of European partners can be challenging. But Europe is Europe and scientists don’t have boundaries. We work as Europeans; we collaborate as Europeans – we did so before the United Kingdom left the EU and will continue to do so to the best of our abilities.
What binds us together is what matters and that is the creation of useful knowledge that contributes to the broader European community that is focused on promoting more sustainable ways of living.
Hussam Jouhara is a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Brunel University London, United Kingdom, and the technical director of iWAYS, a Horizon 2020 research project.