Interdisciplinarity in Sustainability Research: Reflections from Our Event on 27/11/13

joelInterdisciplinary challenges in sustainability research was the theme for the Sustainability Research Network’s first early career researcher-led seminar, held in association with the Graduate School’s Lunchtime Seminar Series. The seminar began with talks from Joel Hamilton (Engineering) who is researching waste heat utilisation from a renewable power plant in rural India, and Wil Knight (Geography & Politics) whose research concerns public engagement with UK shale gas development. They discussed the challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary work in relation to their PhD research, before opening up the floor to questions and discussion.

Joel discussed his research in developing refrigeration from waste heat and renewable technologies for the Bridging the Urban Rural Divide Programme. Whilst the project was making great progress in developing the technology; Joel was facing social and cultural hurdles in encouraging rural communities in India to become involved with the project. Conversely, Wil’s presentation considered that whilst the theoretical side of his public engagement research was progressing well, the technical and engineering elements of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas drilling was presenting a research challenge within a social science environment.

The convergences between Joel’s and Wil’s research provided an interesting platform for discussion, with both speakers drawing on their own research backgrounds and experience in order to offer potential solutions to overcoming some of the hurdles posed by interdisciplinary research. Participants from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds offered their own diverse perspectives on the ethical, social and technical complexities of sustainability research in its many contexts.

The event, attended by around 20 early career researchers and members of faculty at UoN, provided a unique opportunity to network and discuss key issues within sustainability research. The seminar concluded by highlighting that whilst interdisciplinary work can often present challenges, bringing together researchers from different disciplines has the potential to create fruitful discussion. We hope that attendees left with new information, approaches, ideas and contacts to help tackle the challenges they may face in their own sustainability research. If you have any specific questions for Joel or Wil, please pass them on to us via the email address below and we will be happy to pass these onto them.

SRN is the first of its kind at UoN and is always keen for new members to come on board. If you have an idea for a future event, would like to find out more about SRN and become a member, or are keen to attend one of our upcoming events, please do get in touch (SRN@nottingham.ac.uk). We look forward to hearing from you!

Joel Hamilton (PhD student, Engineering): Waste heat utilisation from a renewable power plant

A collaboration of 4 UK and 3 Indian universities are developing a renewable power plant for a rural community in India as part of a Bridging the Urban Rural Divide (BURD) programme. Electricity will be generated from solar and hydrogen enriched biogas, using concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) and an internal combustion engine electrical generator (genset) respectively. This research focuses on using the waste heat from the CPV at 60°C and the radiator of the genset at 80°C for refrigeration. The CPV operates during the day when the sun is shining (assumed to be 7 hours a day) and the genset operates in the evening for 4 hours a day. Three configurations of absorption refrigerator have been modelled to utilise these discontinuous low temperature waste heat sources to provide continuous refrigeration in the conditions expected in India (30°C for this model). The configurations are:  two separate refrigerators, coupled cycle where one refrigerator cools parts of the other to achieve a lower output temperature and a two boiler system where some of its output cooling can be used to cool parts of the refrigerator to achieve lower output temperatures.  The separate cycle has the highest COP (coefficient of performance or refrigeration efficiency) of 0.548 with a refrigerating temperature of 14°C. The two boiler system has the best combination of low refrigerating temperature 9°C and COP 0.464. The coupled cycle has a COP of 0.453 and a refrigerating temperature of 9°C. The two boiler system has the best control of refrigerating temperature whereas the coupled cycle can better utilise its heat sources as it can take different solution concentrations in each refrigerator.

Wil Knight (PhD student, Geography, Politics): Protest, Rocks and Gas: Reflections on the Complexities of Inter-Disciplinary Research

It is often at the borders between different disciplines, where the complexities and nuances of differing subject matters converge, that the most enriched of research opportunities emerge.  Despite the abundant potentiality that interdisciplinarity offers, these boundaries remain a challenging research environment with subject-specific approaches to research often raising complex obstacles to navigating inter-disciplinary projects. Drawing upon my own research experiences examining public engagement with UK shale gas development, this presentation reflects on the complexities of engaging with the ‘physical’ sciences from a ‘social’ science perspective.

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