Five energy, environment and process firms tackling the biggest global problems

Professional Engineering

UK engineering firms are coming up with innovative solutions to some of Earth's biggest problems (Credit: Shutterstock)
UK engineering firms are coming up with innovative solutions to some of Earth's biggest problems (Credit: Shutterstock)

Faster trains. Cleaner air. Fresher food. Engineering firms are tackling some of the world’s biggest problems.

This week, we're diving into the 2018 edition of the 1,000 Companies to Inspire report from the London Stock Exchange, looking at 19 UK businesses at the forefront of engineering innovation.

First up, here are five of the cleanest and greenest companies in energy, environment and process engineering. 

Energy: Halving energy use with buildings that breathe

Volution Group, Crawley

As city planners and architects continue to look for ways to design buildings so they are low- or zero-energy, one aspect they need to consider is airflow.

Breathing Buildings is a subsidiary of the Volution Group, which acquired it at the end of 2016. According to the company, buildings that have controlled hybrid and natural ventilation systems are likely to see a 60% reduction in their energy consumption compared to those that are ventilated entirely by mechanical systems.

While helping its customers save energy is an important aim, the company also focuses on ensuring that any solution complements the design of the built environment.

When a customer contacts Breathing Buildings with a query about how best to ventilate their office or property, they receive the support of a team of MEng and PhD engineers, who sit down with the customer and design low-energy buildings with a focus on air quality, thermal comfort and ensuring that the built environment is stimulating.

Environment: Rolling out recycling robots

Blue Machinery (Blue Group), Nationwide

With the UK producing more waste than ever before, we need technology that can handle and process rubbish with more efficiency.

At the end of 2015, Blue Group, which has supplied recycling and material processing equipment to the waste handling and quarrying industries since 2004, announced a distribution agreement for the UK with ZenRobotics, a leader in robotic waste separation. Blue distributes the ZRR, a robotic recycler that relies on artificial intelligence to recognise mixed waste, identify valuable raw materials to be recovered, and control the robotic arms’ adaptive picking motion.

Eugene Donnelly, one of the group’s directors, says “the technology is three times quicker than a human, more accurate and can work over multiple shifts”, which means that any company that invests in it is likely to see its costs reduced in the long term.

Partnerships with machinery manufacturers are at the core of what Blue does. The group now has an agreement to supply CK International’s automatic and semi-automatic balers.

Energy: Slashing energy use at supermarkets

Wilson Power Solutions, Leeds

The UK’s supermarkets are committed to reducing their emissions and carbon footprint, and to help them make this transition they’re looking to introduce energy-saving technologies and processes.

Tesco, which has pledged to achieve zero-carbon status by 2050, is one of several large organisations, alongside the NHS, Asda and McCain, to have sought the expertise and technology of Wilson Power Solutions.

The family-owned business based in Leeds introduced the UK’s first super-low loss amorphous distribution transformer, known as the e2, in 2009. Since then, more than 90 of the e2 transformers have been installed at Tesco sites across the country. This has led to savings of 9m kWh a year – worth £810,000.

Dr Lore Grohmann, who heads up marketing at Wilson, says the e2 is a prime example of how the company is committed to breaking boundaries and pioneering new technology. “It already exceeds strict EU eco-design specifications (Tier 2) that aren’t due to come into effect until July 2021,” she adds.

Environment: Offsetting carbon emissions by planting trees

FW Thorpe, Redditch

Energy efficiency is a goal for many large infrastructure projects, and businesses are always looking for ways to reduce their emissions. For the FW Thorpe group, and particularly one of its lighting manufacturer subsidiaries Thorlux, this has come in the form of planting trees to offset carbon use.

Towards the end of last year, Thorlux installed smart lighting at Redditch railway station – the lights react to the number of people on the platforms and the luminaires can be monitored remotely and controlled by smartphone. To offset the carbon the station’s new lighting system was expected to emit, Thorlux planted 169 saplings on land owned by the company in Devauden in Monmouthshire.

Since launching the carbon-offsetting programme in 2009, Thorlux has planted 150,000 trees on 215 acres, offsetting more than 32,000 tonnes of carbon.

Process: Keeping food fresher for longer

Plastics Capital, Nationwide

Given the complex nature of the food supply chain, it is inevitable that there will be waste. But shrink-wrap can help preserve food for longer, minimising the volume that ends up being discarded. Cucumbers, for instance, can last seven to 10 days longer when shrink-wrapped than when unwrapped.

Rigorous quality shrink-wrapping is about providing a strong barrier that prevents the food from being exposed to oxygen, moisture or gas, which would otherwise result in spoilage and a shortened shelf life.

Synpac, acquired by Plastics Capital in 2016, is a leader in producing vacuum pouches and bags for the retail industry and is an approved supplier to Asda, Harrods, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose. The company uses polyamide and polyethylene film and other barrier structures, including ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer. While there are competitors, a Plastics Capital spokesperson says that Synpac’s market advantage is its capacity to manufacture the high volumes requested by its customers.

Read part two, on manufacturing, materials and training firms, here.

Read part three, on transport engineering firms, here.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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