Eleven projects launched to decarbonise heating and cooling

Woman using app on smart phone to control digital central heating thermostat at home

Exploring using water from abandoned mines to heat the UK’s homes is among 11 new 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% of greenhouse gases a result of home heating using fossil fuels. This is 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 continue to grow unless renewable methods of generating this energy are found.

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.

£14.6 million investment

The projects announced today are supported by a £14.6 million investment from:

  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

EPSRC and NERC are both part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

They will explore a variety of different ways for the UK to transition to using efficient, decarbonised and sustainable technologies for heating and cooling buildings and for the food cold-chain.

Sustainable technologies

They include the Geothermal Energy from Mines and Solar-Geothermal heat (GEMS) project led by Durham University.

The project will explore whether water in flooded, abandoned mines could be used as a low-carbon, geothermal source of heat.

It has been estimated that there is enough heat within the UK’s coalfields to meet the demands of all the buildings that lie over them.

Energy storage technology

Another project is led by Imperial College London.

It will 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
  • cool water to be stored to provide cooling in the summer.

It would greatly reduce the energy required to heat and cool buildings.

Renewable electricity

The Heat Accumulation from Renewables with Valid Energy Storage and Transformation (HARVEST) project is led by the University of Birmingham.

It aims to develop new heat storage and conversion technology.

This would absorb and accumulate curtailed renewable electricity over the course of the whole year. Curtailed renewable electricity is the deliberate reduction in output below what could have been produced because of low demand or transmission constraints.

This would ensure renewable electricity is stored in times of less electricity demand and ready for use to meet high heating demand in winter and high cooling demand in summer.

Cost-effective

And the Flexible Air Source Heat pump for domestic heating decarbonisation (FASHION) project is led by the University of Glasgow.

It aims to overcome challenges to the widespread use of air source heat pumps in UK homes.

These heat pumps, which draw energy from the air, have great potential as cost-effective and renewable sources of energy for heating in UK homes. But currently their capacity and efficiency can be impacted by cold temperatures.

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.

Tackling climate change

This work adds to UKRI’s long tradition of investing in cutting-edge research and innovation to understand, tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change.

This year the UK hosts the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) summit in November.

UKRI will use its role as a steward of the research and innovation system to bring our communities together.

We aim to create sustainable and resilient solutions and encourage new behaviours and new ways of living that enable the UK to reach net-zero by 2050.

Further information

As part of UKRI, EPSRC and NERC aim to support a diverse and inclusive research environment where there is equal access to opportunities.

Our objective is to embed equality, diversity and inclusion in all that we do. We ensure that the activities we support and the research that we fund drives change in our community, and supports a system that is inclusive for everyone.

EPSRC has been working to further equality, diversity and inclusion in engineering and physical sciences research through:

  • improving the gender diversity in our advisory boards
  • improving our peer review process to ensure fairness
  • working in partnership with key stakeholders
  • delivering against the UKRI action plan.

Project summaries

Aquifer thermal energy storage for decarbonisation of heating and cooling: Overcoming technical, economic and societal barriers to UK deployment

  • Led by: Professor Matthew Jackson, Imperial College London
  • UKRI funding: £1.5 million (NERC)

The project aims to develop technology that would tap underground water to provide a renewable energy source to heat and cool buildings.

The team would use aquifer thermal energy storage that would warm or cool groundwater that is pumped underground and stored in a porous rock mass, called an aquifer.

This would allow:

  • warm water to be stored to provide heating in winter
  • cool water to be stored to provide cooling in the summer.

It would greatly reduce the energy required to heat and cool buildings.

The team will build on experience of installations in the Netherlands which have shown that the technology recycles up to 90% of the energy that would otherwise be wasted.

They will conduct field trials and experiments to determine the UK’s capacity for this technology.

Sustainable, Flexible and Efficient Ground-source heating and cooling systems (SaFEGround)

  • Led by: Dr David Taborda, Imperial College London
  • UKRI funding: £1.5 million (EPSRC)

The project aims to provide a template for reducing the emissions associated with heating and cooling through the use of heat pumps.

These devices can extract heat from sources such as soil or the air with high efficiency, usually providing three or four units of heat for every unit of electricity used.

They are also more environmentally-friendly than boilers as they only require electricity.

The team aims to demonstrate that heat pumps drawing energy from the ground can play an important role in the UK’s future low-carbon energy mix.

They will investigate how they can be coupled with our buildings and urban infrastructure to deliver low-carbon heating and cooling.

Geothermal Energy from Mines and Solar-geothermal heat (GEMS)

  • Led by: Professor Jeroen van Hunen, Durham University
  • UKRI funding: £1.4 million (EPSRC and NERC)

Mine water in flooded, abandoned mines has the potential to provide a huge source of low-carbon, geothermal heat for the future.

It is estimated to be enough to meet the demands of all the buildings that lie over old coalfields.

The project will look at all aspects of mine water geothermal heating, from its extraction using heat pumps to storage, delivery and the role of local communities.

This includes:

  • developing numerical models to determine how suitable individual mines are
  • an experimental solar-geothermal system that will help to ensure that this energy source keeps up with seasonally-fluctuating demands by storing heat in the underground mine waters for later use.

Flexibility from Cooling and Storage (Flex-Cool-Store)

  • Led by: Dr Carlos Ugalde-Loo, Cardiff University
  • UKRI funding: £1.1 million (EPSRC)

Demand for the summertime cooling of buildings is set to increase in the UK.

This interdisciplinary project will investigate the potential impacts of a growth in cooling demand and how they can be sustainably managed.

It will conduct detailed studies to understand how cooling demand might change in the coming decades and quantify the impact of increased demand on electricity networks.

It will also explore how cooling and electricity systems will interact and whether greater flexibility can be provided by integrating the electrical power system with cooling technologies and storage.

DecarbonISation PAThways for Cooling and Heating (DISPATCH)

  • Led by: Dr Sasa Djokic, The University of Edinburgh
  • UKRI funding: £1.4 million (EPSRC)

The DISPATCH project approaches the grand challenge of decarbonising heating and cooling at net-zero depth as an actual opportunity to set hard objectives of change in short timeframes.

It aims to determine how UK net-zero transition can be realised through a bottom-up aggregation and sharing of customers’ resources.

It will fully explore the synergies, interoperability and integration potential of different energy vectors for supplying demands for:

  • electricity
  • heating/cooling
  • transportation, etc.

Starting from individual households or buildings as basic functional blocks, DISPATCH will implement “virtual multi-vector energy plants” at different aggregation levels.

It will allow a coordinated operation of local communities and districts and further interactions with aggregators and network operators.

DISPATCH aims to determine:

  • how customers can use currently available, emerging and future decarbonised energy sources based on where they live
  • how they and others use the buildings they live in and whether they can be retrofitted with new technologies.

These include:

  • electrification of heating and transportation
  • hydrogen-based systems
  • photovoltaic solar panels
  • thermal storage
  • batteries
  • biomass.

Heat Accumulation from Renewables with Valid Energy Storage and Transformation (HARVEST)

  • Led by: Dr Yongliang Li, University of Birmingham
  • UKRI funding: £1.5 million

The project aims to develop new heat storage and conversion technology to absorb and accumulate curtailed renewable electricity over the course of the whole year.

It will use a microwave-assisted process to flexibly absorb electricity and then regenerate it through reaction between thermochemical materials and ammonia solution.

It would ensure renewable electricity is stored in times of less electricity demand and ready for use to meet high heating demand in winter and high cooling demand in summer.

Flexible Air Source Heat pump for domestic heating decarbonisatION (FASHION)

  • Led by: Professor Zhibin Yu, University of Glasgow
  • UKRI funding: £1.1 million (EPSRC)

The project aims to address challenges to the wider use of air source heat pumps (ASHPs) as a cost-effective, renewable source of energy for heating in UK homes.

Most ASHPs have a relatively low heat production temperature, unlike gas boilers designed for high temperature heat supply.

Their capacity and efficiency can also drop dramatically as ambient air temperature falls and need to be defrosted in cold temperatures.

They are also expensive to build with low public awareness of their potential.

The project aims to develop an efficient, flexible ASHP. It will be capable of continuous heating during frosting, energy-efficient defrosting and operating at different modes to benefit from off-peak electricity or warm air during the daytime.

Barocaloric materials for zero-carbon heat pumps

  • Led by: Dr Xavier Moya, Imperial College London
  • UKRI funding: £1.4 million (EPSRC)

The project aims to replace the conventional technologies currently used to provide heating with an environmentally-friendly and efficient alternative using barocaloric effects.

These take place when materials are subjected to changes in pressure, generating heat that can be utilised through heat pumps.

The project also aims to develop an economic and policy strategy to support the development and commercialisation of barocaloric heat pumps.

It will enable the UK to become a world leader in this emerging technology.

Decarbonisation of food cold chain through integrated hydrogen technologies

  • Led by: Dr Sanliang Ling, University of Nottingham
  • UKRI funding: £1 million (EPSRC)

The project aims to develop integrated hydrogen technologies.

It will utilise metal hydrides to provide the controlled release of hydrogen to power fuel cells and, at the same time, generate cooling through an endothermic reaction of hydrogen release.

The project will work alongside industry stakeholders to support adoption.

This dual use will enable hydrogen power to become a key part of the UK’s energy future.

It will assist in the decarbonisation of the UK food cold chain which is responsible for 18% of the UK’s total energy use.

Hydrogen fuel cells which convert sustainably-derived hydrogen, from solar and wind power, to electricity have great potential.

The global market for fuel cells is projected to reach $14.6 billion by 2027 with global demand now over 70 megatons.

Zero Emission Cold-Chain (ZECC) – building the road to sustainable cold-chain systems for food resilience

  • Led by: Professor Toby Peters, University of Birmingham
  • UKRI funding: £1.4 million (EPSRC)

More than 60% of our food is dependent on the cold food chain, which is also a major contributor to the UK’s energy demand.

The project will bring together world-leading researchers, industry, technology innovators and customers such as farmers and retailers.

It will map the opportunities and challenges to ensure that the chain can support UK-wide net-zero goals and decarbonise while also meeting demand and being resilient.

It will assess aspects such as engineering and food quality and safety, finance and business aspects to provide sustainable, integrated solutions to the decarbonisation conundrum.

Variable-Temperature Thermochemical Energy Storage System and heat networks for decarbonising the buildings sector (VTTESS)

  • Led by: Professor Jo Darkwa, University of Nottingham
  • UKRI funding: £1.3 million (EPSRC)

Conventional thermochemical storage systems require batch operation where the method of storing or discharging heat happens intermittently, but this novel system will operate continuously at variable temperatures.

The project also aims to investigate to better understand the barriers to the uptake of community-based heat networks so that any socio-economic, socio-technical or environmental issues can be addressed.

Top image: Credit: monkeybusinessimages/GettyImages

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