Composites UK’s sustainability manager, Malcolm Forsyth examines the role of composites in future net-zero power generation.
The current conflict in Ukraine and resulting massive increases in gas prices, have highlighted clearly to us all how fragile and unsustainable the global power infrastructure currently is but solutions to this problem are neither easy nor quick.
The recent heatwaves across the UK and Europe have also reminded us all that climate change is real and that its effects are growing with every passing year, making our pursuit of a net-zero world all the more critical. Power generation is a significant aspect of our net-zero journey as we seek to move away from fossil-fuel-based power generation to low or zero carbon-emission power generation methods such as wind, solar, tidal and nuclear.
But what is the role of composite materials in this transition to ensure that sufficient power can be generated consistently and reliably in the future net-zero world that will be needed for humanity’s long-term survival?
The good news for the composites sector is that composites do have a critical role to play in each of the power generation methods of the future and that the UK Composites sector is already a major player in the global technology development that will be needed to deploy composite materials into these applications. In 2021, the Composites Leadership Forum created a powerful summary of the many ways in which composite materials will contribute to the achievement of the UK Government’s target of achieving net-zero by 2050 (the document is available to download free of charge on Composites UK’s website: The UK Composites Strategy | Composites UK) – this summary makes very clear that achieving net-zero is in fact impossible without the contribution that composite materials will make, particularly in the offshore wind sector but also in the nuclear sector as well.
Looking at each of the future low or zero carbon-emission power generation methods in turn, there are clear applications for composites in each:
Wind energy - The wind energy industry of today, and especially the anticipated future wind energy industry centred on offshore and floating wind platforms, is utterly dependent on composites to operate. It is only with the unique blend of lightweight strength properties provided by fibre-reinforced polymer composites that the massive 100m+ length blades now in operation can perform their power generation role reliably and with very limited maintenance over their planned 20 to 30-year lifetime. In addition, composite materials are used for the large housings required to protect the motor and gear infrastructure from the very severe weather conditions experienced in an offshore (or onshore) environment (whether in the North Sea or the very dry, desert conditions across continental USA, Asia and Europe) and also in numerous smaller but critical applications across the whole wind turbine installation. The UK Composites industry supported by the National Composites Centre (NCC) and the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (OREC) centre, continue to play a leading role in developing material solutions for ever bigger blades, and in developing solutions for the recycling and recovery of value from these blades when they eventually reach their end-of-life point. There are now several exciting technical solutions in development which could be used to recover fibres and potentially also the matrix resins, from down-sized end-of-life blades and we can expect to see some of these being installed at commercial scale in the UK in the next three to five years.
Solar and Tidal energy - These two power generation methods will also play increasingly important roles in future UK low/zero power generation and both will provide opportunities for the use of composite materials, although not at the scale that the offshore wind energy will. Composites can be used in the frame structures for solar panels, giving them long-term durability and corrosion/erosion resistance, as well as the transmission infrastructure for the power generated. Within tidal energy, composites can also be used in the some of the power generation structures, especially those which are surface-based (vs underwater turbine based), again making use of their high durability and corrosion-resistance in aggressive marine environments. Both these applications are currently still at small scale within the UK Composites market but as the pressure increases to transition rapidly away from fossil-fuel based power generation (whether due to geo-political or climate change pressures), there will undoubtedly be an increasing market for UK players to exploit in these emerging power generation technologies.
Nuclear energy - Due to the need to offset the inevitable fluctuations inherent with wind and solar energy, there will be a demand to install increased nuclear energy capacity to provide a steady base-load of power supply, and it is anticipated that this may well be in the form of small nuclear reactors spread regionally rather than a small number of very large nuclear energy plants operating today’s technologies. These small nuclear reactors are expected to enter service within the next 10-15 years and ceramic matrix composites (currently under development with input from the NCC) are expected to play an important role in these units, enabling the safe containment of the very high temperatures such processes generate.
In conclusion, the future power generation landscape for a net-zero UK economy (which needs to be in place by 2050 and probably sooner) will look very different to the current landscape (where fossil-fuel based power generation still plays a major role) and composites will play a major role in making this transition possible, especially in the massive growth of offshore wind, but also in the development of the solar, tidal and nuclear energy capability needed to complement this.
There is therefore a major opportunity for the UK Composites value chain to step up and get involved in these major markets of the future and Composites UK is looking to play its part by arranging events where players at every stage in the value chain can come together, share their needs and their expertise, and by so doing, forge new partnerships to help build a major, strong UK sector in the power generation technologies of the future. If this looks of interest or relevance for your organisation, then why not register to attend our next Renewables Showcase event on Wednesday 12th October to be held at the CPI offices on Teesside – full details are available on the Composites UK website.
So, let’s all play our part in helping the UK move to a net-zero power generation position through our consumer choices and in building a strong UK supply chain for the emerging net-zero power generation technologies and industries of the future.