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‘Ireland and the world have a near-sighted, abhorrent addiction to waste’

Shane McDonagh, a MaREI PhD researcher at UCC, aims to use hydrogen to free the world of fossil fuels and create a better planet for all.

Shane McDonagh has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in energy systems engineering, both from NUI Galway.

His interest in engineering, environmentalism and energy policy led him to pursue a PhD in the Bioenergy and Biofuels Research Group at the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy (MaREI) based at University College Cork (UCC). He is involved in many outreach programmes and is interested in pursuing projects outside of his PhD.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

For me, engineering was more about design and analysis; I thought it had to be practical and so research seemed too abstract. I did my master’s degree with the intention of going into industry and not having to come back to college, but my interest was piqued and I ended up changing direction.

I came across technologies and processes that I thought were very applicable to Ireland and wondered why they weren’t being done here. I wanted to find out what needs to happen for them to be adopted, and that was the start of it.

I might have always had an eye for research without realising it, though. A question is always more interesting when you don’t already know what the answer should be and, as my friends will attest to, I love asking questions and having a good argument.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I work on something called power-to-gas (P2G), a technology whereby electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be used as a flexible energy source in engines or fuel cells where the only emission is water. A further step can be included where the hydrogen is combined with CO2 to make methane (synthetic natural gas) and it is used as a substitute for fossil natural gas.

The extra step can make sense as we use a lot of natural gas and have lots of infrastructure set up for it already, but hydrogen is relatively tricky and new. Obviously with this process the cleaner the electricity you use, the cleaner the gas you produce is.

We need to use energy from wind turbines and solar panels, not coal or oil, if we want to make carbon emissions savings. Likewise, the source of CO2 for step two should be from biomass and not fossil fuels if we want as environmentally beneficial a fuel as possible.

Our team, the Bioenergy and Biofuels Research Group within MaREI at the Environmental Research Institute in UCC, does a lot of work on biogas, which is a low-carbon, gaseous fuel derived from the decomposition of crops and wastes. When it is produced, about half of it is methane (natural gas) and half is CO2 (no use as a fuel) and so it needs to be ‘upgraded’ to cleaner gas.

Initially, my job was to investigate using P2G to convert this half of CO2 into more methane using hydrogen. This would mean the overall product was now comparable with what flows through the gas grid and can be used to decarbonise any process currently using natural gas. Over time, I then went on to look more closely at the costs, the overall sustainability of the process and who might be an early adopter.

Other things I investigate are: producing pure hydrogen for transport, and how best to link P2G with renewable electricity generation to help balance out the peaks and troughs associated with wind energy in Ireland. This involves looking at things more holistically and analysing different energy scenarios, finding out the ‘when’, ‘how much’ and ‘who’ of P2G.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In energy, we have a habit of looking 20 or even 30 years into the future and saying what the system should look like, but sometimes the interim is more difficult to predict.

Bioenergy and P2G feature heavily in many future low-carbon models, but the gradual changes, important steps and pathways to get us there aren’t always clearly defined. Research into the costs, changes in policy or technological milestones that make something viable are important as they inform policymakers and industry.

The idea with P2G is that we want to leverage our success in renewable electricity to help combat emissions in areas that are difficult to electrify, like transport or heat. Without sufficient research in this area, nobody will be confident enough to invest and we may end up missing big opportunities.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Fossil fuels are a goddamn miracle! In terms of cost, energy density and incumbency, they have huge advantages over renewable alternatives. Of course, they are also the leading cause of climate change and a huge source of pollution, so things need to change.

But doing so without massive disruption to the energy system is a giant undertaking. Hence, it is the energy transition and not the energy switchover. I think everyone working in the area of renewables has to deal with this.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

When people hear energy, they almost automatically think electricity. In reality, electricity is a small portion of our total energy demand. In Ireland, for example, energy is split [into] roughly 40pc transport, 40pc heat and 20pc electricity. As great as solar panels and wind turbines are, we need to start tackling the other areas of energy just as vigorously.

People should be made aware of all the efforts being made to transition us away from fossil fuels and not just those that are easy to see. Biofuels, energy efficiency, public transport, insulation and even nuclear should be part of a wider conversation rather than each of us focusing on our little niche. The average person doesn’t realise the scale of what we are trying to achieve in avoiding catastrophic climate change, and that is the fault of academia, education and governments.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Maybe I’m not sticking to the energy script, but Ireland and the rest of the world have a near-sighted and abhorrent addiction to waste. We over-package our goods in non-recyclable plastics that, if they avoid making their way into our oceans, get sent to landfill or for incineration.

I would love to see research in minimalist, effective and sustainable packaging for all goods, and for it to be mandatory to use recyclable options where possible. Like the fossil fuels they’re made from, plastics are a bit of a miracle. But there’s no reason we can’t do a lot better and create sustainable alternatives or processes for reusing them. In the end, it’s all connected as recycling and efficiency reduce our demand for energy and resources, making a 100pc renewable system much more achievable.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.

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