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13 December 2005 PR 05/115

‘Buncefield explosion highlights urgent need to invest in alternative energy sources’ warns Loughborough University professor

Motorists are being urged not to panic buy petrol following the explosion at Buncefield fuel depot, near Hemel Hempstead, on Sunday (11 December).

But as drivers across the country wait to see if there is going to be another petrol shortage, a Loughborough University energy expert has warned that urgent action needs to be taken to find alternative ways of powering the UK’s motor fleet if a major crisis is to be avoided.

Professor Rob Thring, who is head of the University’s Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering has hit out at the lack of Government funding for research into alternative energy sources. He has spent years researching Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which he believes need to be developed rapidly if we want to continue using motor vehicles in the future. PEM fuel cells, also called Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells, use hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce electricity.

He also believes petrol prices should be increased even more, and the extra revenue generated ploughed into fuel cell research.

Professor Thring said: “Recent events have shown that we are like drug addicts, hooked on petroleum. The explosion at Buncefield has highlighted what happens when part of the country’s oil supply is lost – imagine what life would be like if it was all gone? Without petroleum we would not be able to get to work, nor to the supermarket, and there would be no food in the supermarket anyway since it all arrives by truck. If we can all use motor vehicles so freely, without any thought for cost, then clearly fuel is too cheap and there is no incentive for us to consider alternative energy sources.

“The petroleum pool is not unlimited, and in about 100 years we have depleted what took millions of years for nature to generate. Some time soon, and predictions vary from three years to 20 years, petroleum production will peak and start to decline. At that point, the price will skyrocket. We need to put the technology in place to cope with that, but it will take 10 years to develop - so we need to start now.

Professor Thring believes harnessing wind power and other renewable energy sources, such as wave power and biomass, is vital to the survival of the UK economy. He estimates that to power all the cars in the country using hydrogen fuel cells we would need around 20,000 wind turbines across the UK – which is roughly the same amount of existing electricity pylons.

“Clearly we couldn’t get in place all the necessary technology to transfer to fuel cells overnight, but we have to start now if we want to be prepared for the end of petroleum,” Professor Thring added. “And the benefits of moving over to this kind of energy production would be massive. Not only could we run all our cars free of Middle East petroleum, but the reduction in pollution and greenhouse gases from car exhausts would be fantastic for the environment.”

Professor Thring is now calling on the Government to invest more money into researching the relevant technology and in demonstrating to people that these new technologies are feasible and practical. Currently around £3 million per year of Government cash is spent in this field – Professor Thring believes this needs to be increased to more than £30 million per year for the UK to keep up with countries like the USA and Japan. Without increased investment he believes the country will remain addicted to petroleum and will face a major crisis in the future when this source of fuel begins to run short.


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Notes to editors

  1. Professor Rob Thring is available for interviews. For further information contact Judy Smyth in the Public Relations Office.
  2. Loughborough has an established reputation for excellence in teaching and research, strong links with industry, and unrivalled sporting achievement. Assessments of teaching quality by the Quality Assurance Agency place Loughborough in the top flight of UK universities. The National Student Survey ranked Loughborough equal first among full-time students, and industry highlights the University in its top five for graduate recruitment. Around 40% of Loughborough's income is for research, and 60% for teaching. The University has been awarded five Queen's Anniversary Prizes: for its collaboration with aerospace and automotive companies such as BAE Systems, Ford and Rolls Royce; for its work in developing countries; for pioneering research in optical engineering; for its world-leading role in sports research, education and development; and for its outstanding work in evaluating and helping to develop social policy-related programmes.

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