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'Net zero' PhDs on the path to sustainable future

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Ameni Lounissi and Andra Stancu

A year on from the announcement that Brunel University London had been selected as part of a major investment in research and innovation in green technologies, we look at two doctoral researchers who have started PhDs in the university’s Doctoral Mobility Pilot programme.

The pilot aims to widen participation of people from industry in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (ESPRC) doctoral training, and is aligned to the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) between EPSRC and Brunel.

Titled ‘Driving productivity for sustainable growth – An industry-focused engineering doctoral training project for leaders in sustainable technology’, the programme aims to foster sustainability leadership in the UK as part of the move to 'net zero' by developing future cohorts of engineers with the skills, experience and knowledge to drive research and innovation in sustainable technologies.

We interviewed two staff members at TWI, the research and technology experts in materials joining and engineering processes, to find out what led up to them starting their fully-funded PhDs, and how their research fits in with their career aspirations – and their vision for humanity.

Exploring how market conditions are created

Andra Stancu has started a PhD that looks at net-zero transition – where countries and businesses have pledged to slash their greenhouse gas emissions, and remaining emissions are balanced by removing pollution from the atmosphere – and she's approaching it from the perspective of national and international policies.

Andra's passion for net zero was sparked when, as a fresh civil engineering graduate, she took part in an international competition to develop 'passive houses': supremely energy-efficient buildings. Having delved deeper into net-zero buildings and concepts during her masters, she arrived at TWI four years ago with a keenness to move her career in that direction.

"At TWI I engage with companies of all sizes and from various industries to shape project ideas towards developing emerging technologies, or towards different targets," she explained. "My role oversees this collaboration, and I support them to develop their products and services and bring them closer to the market."

So when Andra heard about EPSRC's PhD scheme, she felt there was a double benefit – especially through researching part-time alongside her TWI role. "I can expand my knowledge and expertise within the net-zero area, which I can use in my work, and equally I can bring the expertise gained at work into my PhD," she said.

Andra's PhD is a deep dive into how the market conditions are created for net-zero technologies through incentives, policies and guidelines – and how different organisations get involved through their own transition plans. She will assess the emerging technologies that are starting to become available and the governmental support for innovation. Her research will focus more on what's going to happen next, and who needs to be involved to make the transition a success.

And the PhD slots nicely into her longer-term ambitions. "I would like to create an area for myself where I can become a consultancy expert, which is what I'm trying to do at the moment at TWI, and coming up with ideas to define specific programmes in that direction," she added.

Moving towards 'green' AI

For Ameni Lounissi, who has started a PhD in the use of 'green' artificial intelligence in wind turbine technology, her research will contribute to filling a clear gap in human knowledge.

"I was looking into 'green' AI because it's something very new. There are hardly any publications about it – very little data about it," she said.

And this is despite a 300,000-fold increase in the use of state-of-the-art deep learning models since 2012. With ever-increasing amounts of computer processing power being spent on AI, there's a risk that the electricity required to optimise our use of renewable energy could eat into its benefits.

"AI is used heavily in wind turbines," explained Ameni, who has a background in civil engineering. "Sensors take so many recordings, which are then used and processed by deep learning models. This can use a lot of energy, which is against what we are trying to do with controlling energy consumption, and moving towards the intelligent management of technology.

"So what I want to do is to develop an optimised framework for robust algorithms that are less dependent on the specifics of a wind turbine or a wind farm, and which result in a lower carbon footprint. I also want to propose a policy that can safely be adopted by industry, with the aim of moving towards 'green' AI."

Ameni is balancing her PhD with the needs of her team leader role at TWI, where she manages the operations of the organisation's 15 innovation centres, and of NSIRC, the National Structural Integrity Research Centre. She was aware of the support EPSRC provides to graduates to get them onto PhD programmes, but the Doctoral Mobility Pilot was the first time she'd seen similar support provided to employees who already have industry experience.

"It's a great scheme. This is the first time I've seen such support for people working within an industrial environment and doing research at the same time," she said.

Becoming better planetary stewards

Prof Hua Zhao – Brunel’s Vice Provost and Dean of the College of Engineering, Design and Physical Sciences – views the EPSRC’s programme as a big positive for Brunel and for society, as well as for the individuals researching for their PhDs.

"Harnessing sustainable technology is something humanity really needs to get to grips with so that we become better stewards of our planet," he said. "Engineering research has been playing a key part in tackling this global challenge, but there's so much more to be done.

"EPSRC's Doctoral Mobility Pilot provides a welcome boost to engineering research by providing fully-funded PhDs to entice the minds of experienced engineers already working in industry. The benefits for society are obvious – and we at Brunel are delighted to be part of the scheme."

If you’re keen to apply for one of the PhDs offered by Brunel as part of the EPSRC Doctoral Mobility Pilot, please email Ms Teresa Waller, Brunel's Director of Research Support and Development.

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268821
joe.buchanunn@brunel.ac.uk