Sustainability agenda drives search for alternative plastics and energy sources
Many of the most pressing environmental problems are being addressed by institutes of technology
The CIT research project aims to deliver energy efficiency in the manufacturing sector. Dr Alan McGibney and Dr Susan Rea from the institute’s Nimbus centre. Photograph: Darragh Kane
Researchers from the Materials Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) are spearheading a major pan-European research collaboration aimed at tackling plastic pollution. The Horizon 2020 research innovation project, known as BioICEP (Bio Innovation of a Circular Economy for Plastics), seeks to develop sustainable, environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional petroleum-based plastic.
The international consortium includes researchers from Limerick Institute of Technology.
Global production and consumption of plastic has grown exponentially in recent decades. Since the 1950s, about 8.3 billion tonnes of the material has been produced – 60 per cent of which has ended up in landfill or the natural environment.
Researchers believe it will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years for bacteria and the enzymes they produce to evolve to a point where they can break down the long chains of molecules that compose plastic. As a result, the accumulation of plastic is causing serious problems in the environment.
The €5 million project, which will span four years, began last February. Using an innovative triple-action process, the BioICEP team will attempt to accelerate the degradation of traditional plastic and turn it into biopolymers, which can be used as natural biodegradable replacement plastics. Mixed plastic waste will be treated with bacteria and enzymes to break it down. The resulting molecules will be fermented and turned into new bioproducts.
“Our researchers have long been at the forefront of plastics research and development and have been working on solutions to the global crisis of plastic pollution for more than 10 years in association with Enterprise Ireland,” says Dr Declan Devine, director of the Materials Research Institute at AIT.
Another AIT-led project is looking at the use of cutaway peatland and poor agricultural land for freshwater fish production. Led by Prof Neil J Rowan, director of AIT’s Bioscience Research Institute, the research team is investigating the use of naturally-occurring microalgae to help mitigate disease and improve fish health in freshwater fish farms.
This intensive sustainability initiative, which is being carried out in partnership with Bord na Móna as part of its move away from peat harvesting, is expected to “breathe life back into the bog” through improved production efficiencies and management of farmed fish in new inland fisheries.
“The advances being made in the use of cutaway peatland and poor agricultural land for freshwater fish farming will enable us to meet increased demand for sustainable food production,” Prof Rowan explains.
“The research will ensure that the midlands is well positioned to address the challenges posed by Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy and renewable energy while harnessing the potential for sustainable food production and growth of these industries,” AIT president Prof Ciarán Ó Catháin adds.
The project will also help position Ireland as a world leader in sustainable aquaculture, according to Damien Toner, an aquaculture technical specialist with Bord Iascaigh Mhara. “This low-cost, environmentally-friendly aquaculture applied research will aid the development of new eco-innovations and contribute to Ireland’s position as a leading innovator in aquaculture that will underpin production efficiency and sustainability, leading to increased competitiveness globally.”
A cross-border research project involving Dundalk Institute of Technology and Ulster University aims to tackle the difficulties presented by the variability of renewable power sources such as wind and solar. The €6.7 million Spire 2 project, funded by the European Union’s Interreg VA programme, will look at how energy storage resources owned by homeowners and businesses can resolve the problem.
If consumers can store energy effectively, it will allow high levels of renewables to be integrated into power grids globally, at the same time as putting consumers at the heart of the energy system.
The project will create 16 PhD studentships and will further develop up to eight postdoctoral researchers. By creating this supply of highly-educated researchers, who are able to transform ideas into commercial reality, it will also contribute to local economic growth. The project involves collaboration between Ulster University, three research institutes and 12 other organisations through a cross-border virtual research graduate school.
Another sustainable energy project, this time from Institute of Technology Sligo, is helping communities develop their own renewable energy projects. IT Sligo, appointed by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, is the border and west regional co-ordinator for the Sustainable Energy Communities (SEC) programme. IT Sligo’s team of community mentors is helping SECs to better understand their energy use and work together to plan and complete energy projects. The communities are benefiting from warmer and healthier buildings and homes, lower energy bills and reduced harmful CO2 emissions.
IT Sligo is also assisting with the development of community-owned solar and wind farm projects as part of the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS). As a trusted intermediary, IT Sligo is supporting communities to assess project feasibility studies, provide technical support, apply for grid connection and liaise with ESB Networks and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities. This exciting scheme ensures that communities can be central to Ireland’s energy transition.
In addition, Sligo SEC is using matched funding secured from Gas Networks Ireland to assess the viability of developing a satellite gas network using renewable biogas and hydrogen.This network would provide large energy users in the Sligo area with access to much sought after combined heat and power (CHP) technology as well as maturing biogas markets. Sligo SEC comprises multiple organisations including IT Sligo, Sligo County Council, Plan Energy, IDA, Jennings O’Donovan, Sligo University Hospital, Abbott, Sligo Chamber of Commerce, AbbVie, Aurivo and Clayton Hotel.
Cork Institute of Technology’s Nimbus centre is leading a new EU-funded research project to deliver energy efficiency in the manufacturing sector. The €11 million four-year DENiM project will provide a novel technological solution to support a collaborative approach to energy management across various manufacturing sectors.
At the core of the project is close collaboration with industrial partners, who represent the key stakeholders, in evaluating the solutions across four complex industrial sectors. These partners will validate the applicability of key enabling digital technologies as a solution for effective energy management, contributing to best practices that can maximise impact across the EU manufacturing landscape.
Researchers at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) have taken quite an unusual approach to raising awareness of the effects of pollution on seabirds. The team has been awarded funding from the Irish Research Council to develop an exciting marine science outreach project on ethical taxidermy, the stuffing and preservation of animals found dead.
Marrying art and science
The project, entitled The Art of Ethical Taxidermy in Marine Science Education, aims to use new techniques marrying art and science to draw attention to issues facing seabirds in their wider environment. It will involve a multidisciplinary team of scientists, artists, registered taxidermists and media, led by GMIT’s Dr Katie O’Dwyer, lecturer in aquatic ecology at the department of Natural Sciences.
The team includes Donal Mulcahy of Glenameade Taxidermy, Aurelien McEvoy-Jean of East Coast Taxidermy, marine biologist and artist Sabine Springer, media producer Peter Cutler, GMIT scientist Andrew Power, both of Crow Crag Productions and GMIT scientists Dr Katie O’Dwyer, Dr Ian O’Connor and Dr Heidi Acampora, all based at the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre in GMIT’s Dublin Road campus in Galway.
“The seabirds we will be using were exposed to a range of man-made problems in their natural environment, including plastic pollution, oil pollution and lost fishing gear,” Dr O’Dwyer explains. “By creating thought-provoking displays highlighting the animals’ demise, we plan to promote conservation of the marine environment.”
To read more about research and innovation stories from the Institutes of Technology, visit thea.ie/Impact2020