Wednesday, 23 October 2013

About Me

I've just realised that without an 'about me' section this blog is essentially anonymous so I though I'd do a small intro:

My name is Rosalind Davies and I have just finished my PhD at the University of Birmingham, UK. I was funded through the doctoral training centre (DTC) in hydrogen, fuel cells and their applications and worked in the Chemistry department developing new materials for storing hydrogen.

I'm also very keen on talking about science to everyone! I plan on working in science communication: either with the public, businesses or with policymakers, as I feel there is so much exciting research out there that people should hear about.

If you're interested, you can find me on twitter @RDscience, and I have also featured on the 'Speaking of Science' blog.

In my spare time I am also a competitive fencer and triathlete. (If you're interested in hearing about this: follow @RADavies72 )

This blog is very much a work in progress, so if you have any tips or comments please let me know! 

Three Minute Thesis: 3MT

The University of Birmingham recently held a '3 minute thesis' competition (3MT).
3MT is a brilliant idea, and involves PhD researchers explaining their thesis to a general audience in 3 minutes with no props and using only one stationary slide.

The competition was started in Australia, and has since spread across the world. The interest was quite high at UoB, and there was a round of heats (one for each college) and then a grand final.
I was one of two from the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences that made it through to the final, and joined the other 9 finalists on 27th September in the Great Hall to present my work. Below is a photo of me presenting taken by one of my colleagues in the office.

I used my slide (shown below) to illustrate the increase in the amount of hydrogen (the blue dots) that you can store in a certain volume using a metal hydride (right) instead of a compressed gas tank (left) using my favourite analogy of shoes in a shoe rack vs shoes in a mess!

The videos have now been posted online, with mine found here:

I found the feedback very interesting: a number of non-scientists (including the judges) came up to me and congratulated me on how I had managed to present quite a complicated scientific concept in an understandable way. However, the judges on the panel with a scientific background thought I used the analogy too much, so it seems you can't please everyone! Annoyingly we didn't get to hear the other finalists' presentations, but the UoB winner's video is linked below:

I know I'll definitely be back next year, with a year's more research to squeeze into 3 minutes!


Last year I competed in FameLab UK - a science communication competition where you are allowed to speak on a scientific subject of your choice for 3 minutes using only what you can carry onto the stage. Below are links to my heat and 2nd round videos - neither of which are fantastic quality!

I chose the concept of my research (hydrogen storage) as my topic, and my video entry can be viewed here:

I made it through to the second round in Birmingham and the video of this round is here:

FameLab is a great experience and I would encourage all scientists to give it a go! This years competition is just getting started, with heats all around the UK and you can enter here

Thursday, 17 October 2013

My second adventure to Westminster

This week I went to the second hydrogen themed UKHFCA and PRASEG event entitled:

Hydrogen and Fuel Cells: European success stories across the energy and transport landscape

I could see just from looking at the list of attendees that it was much more popular than the last one of these events I went to (see previous blog post). I think it was a surprise to everyone that there was standing room only!

The evening began with Dennis Hayter introducing the field of hydrogen technology as a “global industry with global opportunities” and the tone remained just as positive throughout the event. There were three short presentations detailing the current level of implementation of the hydrogen economy in the EU (Bert de Colvenaer), Germany (Hanno Butsch) and the UK (Adam Chase). It was interesting to see how the same sorts of technology such as prototype buses, are at similar stages of development in these three markets. The motivations for developing hydrogen technologies were also similar: protection against climate change; energy security and securing the economy. We heard that, in Germany, there has been the promise of long term investment in a 10 year programme, giving reassurance to the private sector. The shift from governmental control to industrial responsibility has also begun to occur and it was stressed how important this was for the future of hydrogen and fuel cells.

The second half of the evening was a panel discussion, chaired by Adam Chase and open to questions from the floor. I asked the panel about public perception of hydrogen technologies and whether they thought this could be a barrier to adoption. Both Hanno Butsch (from a German perspective) and Amanda Lyne (giving a UK view) agreed that the general consensus is that there is very little knowledge about hydrogen technologies, but those that understand what it is and the benefits have a positive opinion. She stressed that any UK initiative for introducing hydrogen technology should also include informing potential consumers.

There were then a number of questions addressing the lack of UK policy on hydrogen and fuel cells, leading to difficulties for small UK businesses trying to remain competitive with overseas markets. Amanda Lyne encouraged us all to write to our MPs to get the issues raised in parliament, while Ian Williamson gave Korea as an example: Alastair Rennie agreed that the UK is trying to get it perfect straight away, but this is proving to be a barrier to doing anything! Bert de Colvenaer addressed the problem that hydrogen is providing a solution to an unseen problem, and that only a large scale event such as a European blackout will cause people to stand up and take notice.

The discussion was lively and interesting, but I left with the same feeling as last time: that I had just left a room of people who know what the problem is and are developing a technology to solve it, but that there was no-one there who disagreed or, more crucially, who really had the power to implement change. So the problem remains: how do we get people and, in particular, policymakers to listen to us?

Voice of Young Science Media Workshop

I initially signed up to the VoYS media workshop because I'm interested in the public communication of science and one important aspect of this is how scientific topics are portrayed in the media. The day was arranged into 3 panel discussions with plenty of time for discussion with the floor which turned out to be a really good format allowing for lots of input from the workshop participants.

The first discussion session was led by scientists who had been involved with working in the media and it was really interesting to hear what they had done, how they had been invited and how well it had gone. They stressed the importance of being prepared and reminded us that our job was to provide informed comment – we’re not TV presenters!

During lunch we discussed the good and bad points about how science was portrayed in the media. We all started off pretty negative, listing examples of misinformation and badly weighted debates. However, after more discussion, we came to the conclusion that it wasn't all that bad! TV and radio shows are beginning to make science more of a mainstream topic, and we all agreed that this was a good thing. After discussing these issues amongst ourselves, we heard from journalists who wrote for a range of audiences which allowed us to discuss the points we had thought of with them. They stressed how important it is to consider the reporter when you’re giving them information: do they understand? If not, they will be more likely to convey the wrong final message to their audience.

Me giving feedback from our group discussion

After an impromptu move to the local pub following an evacuation of the original building we began a session that offered practical guidance. We discussed in groups the barriers that we found as young researchers considering approaching the media and then put these concerns to the panel. Our group decided that we’d just never got the chance to speak to the media, and that we’d all be wary of talking about our research without consultation with our supervisors.

We were encouraged to get to know our university press office, but be conscious that not all cutting edge research is actually interesting to everyone! The final part of the day was a discussion focussed on challenging claims made by companies. There were a number of people in the room who gave, in some cases quite upsetting, examples of the media portraying misleading information. However, the ask for evidence campaign was introduced and this seems like a really easy way to find out what scientific evidence any advertising claim is based on.

The whole day was very interesting, involving a lot of discussions with each other and the invited panellists. I left feeling enthused about engaging with the media and ready to ‘ask for evidence’! 

Hydrogen in Westminster

In January I headed down to the Houses of Parliament to hear a panel discussion on the use of hydrogen and fuel cells. It was really interesting to see how the discussion was run and who was attending. I found that there was a general feeling of agreement that hydrogen and fuel cells were a good idea - obviously I agree with this point of view but the lack of opposition arguments was quite interesting in itself! 

I also left feeling pretty smug, as I knew at least half of the attendees, by sight at least if not by name, and this gave me encouragement that my feeble attempts at networking were starting to pay off.

I wrote up a report for the Energy CDT Network that I've posted below. Apologies, as it's not great to read, but I'm heading off to another similar event on Tuesday and I'll provide a more readable report from that...

Panel discussion
The discussion was opened by Peter Aldous, MP, chair of the all party parliamentary group for intelligent energy, who talked about how the UK needs to aim to maximise its contribution to the new energy market and not remain focussed on just one technology. He then passed over to the chair of the panel discussion, Noel Botha from Orion innovations. Mr Botha gave a brief introduction to fuel cells and the growth of the market before posing a series of questions to the panellists, starting with asking where hydrogen could fit in to a renewable energy system.

Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM power, began by giving his view that hydrogen acting a grid storage method will allow the incorporation of renewable energy into the electricity network. This storage addition will allow the use of more renewable sources and will require the partnership of the electricity grid and the transport infrastructure. Another benefit of using hydrogen is that it can be produced from a range of sources, including natural gas. He added that this meant that the introduction of cheap shale gas would only decrease the price of hydrogen as reforming gas to hydrogen and using it in a fuel cell increases the overall efficiency when compared to direct combustion of natural gas.

Ian Williamson, CEO of AFC energy, answered Mr Botha’s second question about the motivation for focussing on fuel cell technology rather than combustion: the greater efficiency of a fuel cell in comparison to a gas turbine remains on scaling up the technology. He added that some fuel cells can be used to an even higher efficiency by utilising not only the electrical energy, but also the heat given off in a combined heat and power system.

Alastair Rennie, deputy chair of the UKHFCA and the project director of AMEC, made the case for using carbon capture and storage to aid the introduction of hydrogen into the energy system. Integrated gasification and CCS produces cheap hydrogen and removes the CO2 before distribution. This allows large scale use of hydrogen for transport and heat, not just electricity: acting as a universal energy vector. The diversity of sources of hydrogen leads to guaranteed supply, reassuring for industry.

Dennis Hayter, chair of the UKHFCA and vice president of business development of Intelligent Energy, answered a question posed about the introduction of fuel cell vehicles. He acknowledged the challenge of decarbonisation of transport, and added that the main benefit of hydrogen vehicles over electric vehicles is the extended range: a point re-enforced by Graham Cooley, who added that this additional range leads to a reduction in the amount of infrastructure needed.

The discussion then moved on the role of the UK and whether it could be a world leader in the technology or whether it would rely on expensive imports. Ian Williamson quoted the large growth of the UK industry to show the potential, and said that the large number of UK companies could learn from other countries to become world leaders. In addition to this, he emphasised the need to find people close to the point of production to buy fuel cells, reducing transportation costs. Graham Cooley’s view was that there needs to be an emphasis on ‘buying British’ and that long term policy needs to be made so that investors can be confident. Alastair Rennie believes that a simple feed in tariff across all sectors will enable consistency. Dennis Hayter's view was that the UK has the capability and leadership but that it doesn't realise it yet.

The discussion was then opened to the floor, with questions to the panellists about the timescale of application of the technology, how the cost of hydrogen compares with other technologies and the role of local government. The panellists responded by stressing the need for long term policy, potentially starting with a 10 year period after which any feed in tariffs can be adjusted. Graham Cooley stressed that hydrogen is already the lowest cost option for long term energy storage. All the panellists agreed on the need for alliances between the hydrogen industry and local councils.

The final question from the floor was whether the UK had enough resources to invest in a range of hydrogen technologies, or whether it would be best for the UK to become a world leader in just one. Graham Cooley pointed out that the UK does not like picking winners, but instead relies on the free market and that there was a need for technical people in decision making positions. Alastair Rennie disagreed, saying that a responsible industry should be able to keep politicians informed, but that that the UK drive was always for the cheapest technology.

The discussion was closed by Dennis Hayter, who again stressed the importance of timescale, focussing on the 5-7 year cycle of the automotive industry, but that the technology was ready to be extended to manufacturing scale.