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Forward Thinkers: From the birth of nuclear power to biomass micro-grids

Joseph Flaig

Low- and zero-carbon energy has developed rapidly over the last 70 years (Credit: Andy Potts/ Good Illustration Agency)
Low- and zero-carbon energy has developed rapidly over the last 70 years (Credit: Andy Potts/ Good Illustration Agency)

For 175 years, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has been in the engine room of transformational change. From rail to road, aerospace to nuclear power, it has fostered and amplified the ground-breaking work of countless engineers. To celebrate this major anniversary, this week we are looking back at five forward thinkers who helped shape the world we live in – and five who are creating the world of tomorrow.

Lord Christopher Hinton, 81st president of the IMechE and nuclear energy pioneer

Lord HintonEngineering careers do not always start in the right sector – even for those who are destined to become peers. For Lord Christopher Hinton, a six-year apprenticeship at the Great Western Railway’s Swindon Works was “unnecessarily long and wearisome”, according to the IMechE archive. 

Thankfully, Hinton eventually found the right field. Following lengthy industrial experience, and appointment as deputy director general of the Royal Filling Factory organisation during the Second World War, he became head of the Atomic Energy Authority’s industrial production base at Risley. He completed all projects on time and within budget, and in 1956 Calder Hall power station became the first nuclear power station to supply electricity to the National Grid.

Elizabeth Nyeko, founder and CEO of Modularity Grid

Elizabeth Nyeko In rural Uganda, the cheapest energy tariff is about $0.50-1 per kilowatt hour, roughly the amount of power needed to boil a kettle 10 times. “Think of a mother with a baby, who needs to sterilise stuff – it’s super expensive! Being able to bring down the cost of electricity can make a real impact,” says Elizabeth Nyeko. 

Reducing the cost of energy is one of the aims of Modularity Grid, set up by Nyeko after experience designing, installing and operating biomass micro-grids. During the work it became clear that engineers were devoting an unsustainable amount of time to routine tasks using manual software tools. “There was a need for tools that could help with managing performance and health,” she says. “That’s what drove me to setting up Modularity Grid.”

The company’s technology helps manage supply and demand, intelligently directing resources to provide the specific amount of electricity needed by users. It also enables smart operations and maintenance, thanks to increased visibility into the state of subsystems and components. 

“Having a handle on the state of charge, the rate of charge, rate of discharge, and all of these types of back metrics, gives you an indication of how a battery is behaving, and can help you pick up problems in advance,” says Nyeko. “You would then end up being able to save the component from failing.”

This data-rich approach enables predictive maintenance, operational transparency, and reduced costs. In an Innovate UK-funded demonstration in Uganda, the company brought the kilowatt hour price down to about $0.26.

The same approach could bring numerous benefits to rural areas in the UK. Nyeko is working on a micro-grid project on a farm in Wiltshire, using bioenergy from manure. Such systems could cut the cost of energy by 30-40%. 

In the future, Nyeko predicts a “happy medium” between rural micro-grids and the national grid – farms and data centres generating their own renewable energy, cutting costs and helping quantify emissions reductions. 

Make sure to check imeche.org/news throughout the week for more stories on Forward Thinkers, from nuclear energy pioneers to zero-emission aviation experts.  

To find out more about the IMechE's 175 celebrations, visit the official home page.


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

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