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InnoEnergy, consolidating sustainable energy in Europe

Due to growing concern about climate change and the progressive exhaustion of fossil fuels, the European Union has committed to moving towards a new energy model. It has selected InnoEnergy, a knowledge and innovation network, from among a great many proposals from around the continent as part of it efforts to advance in this direction by fostering the implementation of sustainable energy.

The essential goal of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (IET) is to effectively integrate the three elements of the so-called triangle of knowledge: education, research and innovation. With this in mind, the go-ahead was given in December for creating the first three knowledge and innovation communities (KIC), networks of excellence comprised by academic, industrial and research consortia with the principal aim of fostering innovation and its impact on the European economy and society in areas important for the future: the information society, climate change and sustainable energy.

The EIT selected a project submitted by the University of Karlsruhe, a node of which is directed by the UPC-Barcelona Tech and ESADE, from among the many projects submitted to this call by a diversity of universities and research centers. The winning project, called InnoEnergy, will build a KIC on sustainable energy that has already begun to take shape. The initiative—which involves an investment of 450 million euros over the next four years—is being carried out in collaboration with companies in the energy sector such as Gas Natural-Unión Fenosa, Iberdrola, EDF, Vatenfall, ABB and Total, and research centers such as the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research (IREC) and the Research Centre for Energy, Environment and Technology of Spain (CIEMAT).

The UPC will coordinate one of the six European centers of operation

“We must be capable of functioning as an efficient network, improving the impact of everything we do. This is the main reason for creating the KIC”, asserts Josep Bordonau, professor at the Department of Electronic Engineering, School of Industrial Engineering of Barcelona (ETSEIB), and coordinator of the InnoEnergy project for the UPC. In contrast to other European Union initiatives, he states, “this is a more stable association that we hope will last at least seven years, but which could even last 15; an association that should benefit all members, since working in this manner should allow us to do more and since it will function with a “business” mentality, though a non-profit one, because the only thing we want is to be able to fund ourselves and carry out relevant initiatives”.

In total, InnoEnergy has 35 members and six centers of operation in Barcelona, Stockholm, Karlsruhe, Grenoble, Eindhoven and Krakow. The UPC-Barcelona Tech, in conjunction with ESADE, coordinates the center of operation for the Iberian Peninsula (Co-Location Center Iberia), to be located at the Diagonal–Besòs Campus in Barcelona. This center will group together members from Spain and Portugal and will develop projects relating to renewable energy and industrial energy efficiency.

The first research project, which is currently at an initial stage, deals with offshore wind energy. Directed by IREC, the final aim is to build a wind turbine for deep waters off the coast of Tarragona—where it could harvest the strong, more regular winds that arise there—and efficiently connect it to the power grid.

This type of technology has been developed for use in the North Sea, especially by Denmark, in areas where wind turbine foundations are in relatively shallow waters. One of the challenges facing the development of this technology today is to solve the problem of anchorage in offshore areas such as the Mediterranean Sea, where the seafloor drops to great depths much closer to the coast than in other seas.

One line of action is to reduce the amount of energy consumed by industry

To overcome these physical limitations, the aim is to use third-generation technology, that is, to have the turbine form part of a rigid structure anchored directly on the seafloor. Another possibility, which is attractive but complex according to engineers, would be to build a floating platform anchored by chains to the seafloor such that the turbine could move to a certain degree, but would not drift.

Another field of research in which the UPC-Barcelona Tech occupies a leading position and which should be carried out through the Co-Location Center Iberia is that of photovoltaic solar energy, a technology in full evolution consisting of turning sunlight into electricity efficiently, effectively and affordably.

“So-called third-generation photovoltaic technology affords highly interesting possibilities, such as the design of organic solar cells, that is, solar cells made of plastics. Using these materials, the process of manufacturing cells can be made cheaper; in the future, they may even be printed”, explains Ramon Alcubilla, director of the UPC-Barcelona Tech Center for Research in NanoEngineering (CRNE).

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go before this technology is implemented. “Although these cells have a lower performance rate than conventional ones, they’re acceptable for some applications. Performance is a relative concept, above all if they’re supposed to run small electronic devices, such as mobile phones or radios. In applications of this sort, which is where the organic cells will initially be introduced, performance is not such an important factor, whereas price is”, indicates Alcubilla.

Solar thermoelectric energy consists of producing electricity via a thermodynamic, electromechanical process. Basically, the sun’s energy is captured and used to heat water and other fluids and generate steam, which powers a turbine that produces electricity. This type of plants can also use a cogeneration system, that is, adopting a strategy that involves using part of the energy to heat salts and not exclusively to generate electricity. Thus, in the evening, the remaining heat stored in the salts can be extracted using a thermal system and electricity can once again be produced. Development in this field requires significant technological advances, as, for instance, the design of turbines adapted to the size of these plants, since those currently available on the market are more powerful than necessary

The challenge is to motivate the student body to be enterprising

Improvements are also needed in the thermodynamic cycle, which will require finding a decision algorithm to determine what portion of the solar energy is channeled towards producing electrical energy and what portion is designated for heating salts. The algorithm remains to be found.

This work package will be directed by CIEMAT and the Abengoa Group from the Almería Solar Platform, the largest solar thermoelectric research center in the world.

Energy conservation and efficiency

Fostering renewable energy and adopting energy conservation and efficiency strategies are two complementary elements for developing a sustainable energy model. This is why another of the initiatives on which InnoEnergy will focus is a macro project on energy efficiency in industry, to be carried out from the start through the Co-Location Center Iberia in Barcelona.

Industry is one of the sectors that consumes the most energy. Therefore, it would seem a priority to get the processes needing the greatest amount of energy resources to consume less, but first these industrial processes need to be analyzed to ascertain which consume the most, and then see what technological improvements can be adopted to reduce consumption. This is one of the lines of action.

Another line of action involves the introduction of new technology to produce energy at industrial plants allowing more efficient use of energy resources. This technology is based on cogeneration systems in the industrial sphere, a procedure by which electrical as well as useful thermal energy (steam, hot water and hot air) are simultaneously obtained from a primary energy source.

Education and entrepreneurship: the challenges

InnoEnergy’s challenges for its first four years consist of training some 1,500 students on specific international programs to become technology leaders with an extensive entrepreneurial culture, create over 60 new patents and launch over 50 startups. In addition, in this period, some 90 new products are expected to be put on the market.

One of InnoEnergy’s fundamental differential traits is that, from the start, it has also considered working on innovation in education. From a thematic perspective, the UPC-Barcelona Tech wishes to foster doctoral programs and create a new master’s degree program focusing on renewable energy. To do so, it will use the experience it has gained through its current interuniversity Master’s Degree in Energy Engineering and its participation in the Erasmus Mundus program with a Master’s in Sustainable Energy coordinated from Stockholm.

From a conceptual perspective, the aim is to foster an enterprising spirit, that is, make future professionals who are planning their careers become aware of how they can be innovative and generate an impact. With this philosophy, the challenge is to motivate the students to get involved in research and innovation, such that they wish to carry out their ideas in collaboration, for instance, with newly created companies, spin-offs or start-ups. Under the InnoEnergy umbrella, this process will be easier to carry out. ESADE will contribute its experience in this field.

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