Engineering the UK’s first net zero industrial clusters  


The £20 million Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC) has been tasked with taking the UK’s biggest industrial carbon emitter sites on a path to net zero by 2040. Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer, head of the new Centre, says decarbonisation will require a new type of engineer, and joint efforts from industry, government and academia.

Many industrial areas of the UK remain heavily reliant on carbon fuels. The six largest industrial clusters by emissions are in Humberside, followed by South Wales, Grangemouth, Teesside, North West England and Southampton.

The goal is to create the world’s first net-zero carbon industrial cluster by 2040 and at least one low-carbon cluster by 2030.

The Centre will be a one stop shop for all industrial decarbonisation matters – where industry and policymakers can discuss how to accelerate progress, where academia can provide research and innovation expertise and where we can map what we need, and when, to achieve net zero emissions.

Decarbonisation doesn’t mean an end to the traditional industries in those clusters, whether it’s petrochemicals or steel or cement manufacturing. It means adapting and engineering new technologies while creating prosperity.

Does the UK have the skills to decarbonise?

Industry should see decarbonisation as an opportunity, not a threat: workers can be supported to retrain or acquire the additional skills required to reach net zero.

One of our tasks is to complete an options assessment to support skills and training or retraining in each of the six clusters. We need to understand the skills required for the first deployment projects and understand how we can upskill in those areas.

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Initially there will be a focus on upscaling individual skills, but if we look at decarbonising all the clusters it will require a significant level of training.

This is why IDRIC is so important – we can be a single resource for industrial employers across the UK, and we’ll become a rich resource for evidence and guidance on training, education and creating a pipeline of skilled workers. A steel plant in South Wales will likely have the same needs as a steel plant in Humberside, and we can exchange knowledge and best practice.

A new type of engineer

The industrial clusters are complex – no two are the same, although some may have similar activities.

To decarbonise whole regions, we need engineers who understand systems rather than one process or technology. We need a holistic understanding of the challenges we face with emissions in these areas, and overarching solutions.

The UK can position itself at the forefront of the emerging decarbonisation industry and engineers should see this as an attractive career option. From a technical point of view the work is interesting, and decarbonising these clusters will require new business models, challenging current policy and practices to create a world first.

Partnership

I see this process as a partnership: we must work together. University research and innovation can focus on the areas that are particularly challenging for industry to decarbonise, and the academic community can make industry more aware of ongoing research that could translate into opportunities for them.

There are many opportunities. We’ll have to deploy new technologies, make them cost-effective and then integrate them into the individual business plans of dozens of operators across clusters. Companies that are part of large multinationals may need assistance to put forward the business case for new technologies to their global headquarters. Our proposals will need support from existing policy and regulation, and we may need to negotiate complex changes.

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We want to hear from industry, regulators, trade unions, policymakers and interest groups about their needs, concerns and problems. And also – their ideas.

The UK’s low carbon future

By creating low carbon industrial clusters, we make the UK an attractive option for global industries and businesses who want to prove their green credentials. We’ve already heard that companies would consider moving to a net zero area in order to meet their corporate social responsibility goals.

We’re moving faster than many other countries and IDRIC will help accelerate this process. This means we will develop a skilled, knowledgeable workforce as well as technology and systems before anyone else, which could make for a new export market.

All of this requires acuity, ingenuity and a new way of looking at industry across the UK – which UK engineers have a tradition to excel in.

IDRIC is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and is headquartered at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, For more information, visit: idric.org and follow us @IDRICUK



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