Many hands make lighter work

17th September 2012


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The Technology Strategy Board is helping UK companies to solve their sustainability challenges. Sarah-Jayne Russell reports

Innovation is not easy. It’s a risk to do something new, and for every idea that is a success there are many that do not work. However, in a world where access to resources is becoming more limited, and where decarbonisation and climate change adaptation is increasingly urgent, businesses and economies cannot hope to evolve and grow without innovation.

This was one of the motivations behind the creation of the Technology Strategy Board in 2007. Sponsored by the business department, the organisation invests hundreds of millions of pounds each year in supporting companies to bring new technologies, products and services to market, and to encourage businesses, academics and government bodies to collaborate in tackling challenges such as resource security.

Investing for success

In the five years since its launch, the board has helped to generate £2.5 billion of investments in innovation projects, with its analysis showing that every £1 it has invested in collaborative research and development (R&D) programmes has returned £7 in gross value added, a figure set to grow in future. It works with more than 4,000 companies and 150 research organisations, and also helps UK firms access EU and international development funds.

In the current tax year, the board is expected to spend £390 million supporting innovation, half of which will go to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It has also committed to launching 60 R&D projects, which will see £250 million invested over the coming years to address priority areas including: advanced materials; bioscience; the built environment; energy; food supply; and high-value manufacturing.

As well as funding research centres, knowledge sharing networks (see panel below) and events, the body provides much needed financial support to business ventures through its various competition programmes.

These fund market research, R&D, feasibility studies and demonstration projects. SMEs are able to apply for grants of between £25,000 and £250,000 to investigate the viability of new products and develop prototypes under its “Smart” programme. The £40 million initiative is open to all UK SMEs and awards funds on a two-month rolling basis.

Most of the body’s funding, however, is dedicated to larger issue-focused competitions in line with its priority areas, such as improving the sustainability of agricultural practices or reducing the environmental impacts of buildings. These programmes can be:

  • challenge led – where the board examines a particular problem such as water security; or
  • technology led – where firms are asked to investigate how an emerging technology might be applied, such as plastic electronics.

Some programmes allow firms to apply individually for support but others require collaborative groups.

“We try and find the right way to get the right response from a particular target audience,” says Richard Miller, the board’s head of sustainability. “Sometimes that’s about collaboration, sometimes it’s about helping SMEs to participate, sometimes it’s about demonstrator projects and sometimes it’s about proving a technology.

“We try and understand where everybody is in a particular area, what the barriers are and then the right approach to overcome those barriers.”

Saving resources

In the board’s delivery plan for 2012/13, the efficient use of materials is identified as a key area for investment, particularly through ecodesign and creating closed-loop systems. And, while the board has pledged £6 million of funding this year to tackling these challenges, an emphasis on resource efficiency is apparent in many of its other competitions.

“Around two-thirds of our projects have an explicit sustainability objective and we are trying to include it in all of our programmes, not as a separate concern but as an integrated part of the competition,” says Miller. “We try and find the opportunities to remind people that sustainability needs to be taken into account. That’s the only way to make it a mainstream concern.”

One example of a competition that is more explicitly focused on sustainability encourages SMEs to develop technologies that will save or recycle one million litres of water a day. In June, the board announced that it had awarded £650,000 to 10 firms to carry out feasibility studies on their ideas, including £74,000 to Xeros, a company developing virtually waterless washing machines for the leather industry; and £76,000 to carbon reduction consultancy Sustain, which is designing a database containing water footprints of manufactured materials.

When it comes to resource efficiency, several projects have been funded under the board’s low-carbon vehicle innovation platform, including one examining how to create a motor for hybrid trucks that contains no rare earth materials.

At the same time, a manufacturing project has focused on recovering precious metals from circuit boards. Currently, firms have to smash open electronic products and use expensive machines to recover materials. This project tested using adhesives that are soluble in hot water on circuit boards.

“This means you can make a printed circuit board come apart without a lot of thermal or mechanical energy, so the components can be recovered and reused much more easily,” explains Miller.

Arguably the board’s most high-profile initiative for tackling resource efficiency is its supply chain innovation competition. It encourages firms to work with suppliers and researchers to reduce their dependence on key raw materials, such as rare earths, and lower the environmental impacts of using others, like steel and aluminium.

In February, the board revealed the 12 collaborative R&D projects that had been awarded a share of the £4.5 million fund. The competition was developed to address the resource security issues raised by companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, Unilever and Tata Steel, ensuring that the solutions developed had real-world applications.

The successful projects all focus on substituting materials, improving recycling rates, limiting the amount of materials used in production and reducing energy used throughout a product’s life cycle. For example, Jaguar Land Rover is working with experts to create a new aluminium alloy that can replace steel in car components (see panel below).

Designing for the circular economy

The next step in the board’s efforts to aid sustainable innovation is a programme looking at creating a circular economy (launched on 19 September).

“The challenge is that 80% of the environmental impacts of a product are locked in at the design stage,” says Miller. “We’ve realised that it’s really important we involve designers at an early stage.”

The board has started by teaming up with the Royal Society of Arts and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to engage with designers through a series of workshops. The aim is to get designers and companies thinking about how the design process can be done differently and making them aware of the environmental impacts of their choices.

“It’s very easy for a designer to decide to make a product out of a certain type of plastic, for example, and to not think about if it’s re-manufacturable or easy to recover for recycling,” Miller says.

The workshops will be followed by feasibility studies, where designers and businesses will be asked to look at what is really achievable in terms of changing a product or service. Finally, next year, the board will run a competition enabling some of the projects suggested in the feasibility studies to be completed.

The direction of the organisation’s future competitions echoes that of the businesses it works with, confirms Miller. “If you look at the projects under broader topic themes like advanced manufacturing, it’s amazing how many are focused on reducing energy consumption and substituting problematic materials use,” he says.

“Firms want to have a lighter environmental footprint because that’s where they think the market is. As more customers want to run their businesses as zero to landfill, companies are looking to improve the recycling of their packaging. There are lots of economic pressures making organisations say they need to deliver sustainability.”

And with the board around, UK firms trying ground-breaking ways to improve their sustainability or that of their customers will always have a helping hand to do it.

Aluminium allies

One of the 11 projects to benefit from funding under the Technology Strategy Board’s £4.5 million supply chain innovation programme is research led by Jaguar Land Rover into boosting the use of recycled aluminium in car components. The collaborative project sees academics from Brunel University and metals experts from Norton Aluminium, Innoval Technology and JVM Castings working together to create a new aluminium alloy.

The two-year project exemplifies how the programme was designed to focus on tackling the real-world challenges, according to Richard Miller, the board’s head of sustainability. “We wanted to make sure we could encourage resource efficiency without ending up with a lot of bright ideas that don’t necessarily connect with real industry problems, which is a common problem,” he explains.

In Jaguar’s case the difficulty was how to use more recycled aluminium in its cars. Being a lighter material, aluminium helps to reduce the weight of cars, improving their fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, and using recycled aluminium ensures greater resource efficiency.

However, as it stands, Jaguar has to use virgin aluminium in its cars because that’s the only way it can ensure the materials have the properties needed for structural components.

Using £500,000 of funding, the car maker is working with its consortium of experts to develop a new alloy that will meet the company’s performance requirements with up to 75% recycled aluminium. The group is also working on how to make sure the alloy will be easier to recycle at the end of the component’s life.

Get connected

The best way to get involved with the Technology Strategy Board, is through its online community: _connect.

The _connect website is free to join and provides news of the board’s forthcoming events and competitions, as well as an online hub where more than 50,000 individuals and 1,600 businesses share ideas.

The site hosts the board’s 15 knowledge transfer networks (KTNs), special interest groups and community networks. “The KTNs are a really important way of finding out what we are about and what’s available to you, as well as finding potential collaborators and customers,” reveals head of sustainability, Richard Miller.

The KTNs run workshops and events to provide briefings on competitions and to help build consortia of companies to work collaboratively on projects. “Often the KTNs are the way we bring people together, help them understand the challenges being set and look for areas of overlap and interaction between them,” says Miller.

The KTNs also provide their members with feedback on competition applications and provide letters of support, as well as preparing reports and case studies sharing best practice. The environmental sustainability KTN is one of the largest, with more than 5,600 members, and subgroups focusing on areas such as resource efficiency.

For more information visit the environmental sustainability KTN website or ring +44(0)1865 610 505 or email [email protected].


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