Sustainable city living - from the ground up

Joyce Laird

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is taking on the immense goal of creating totally self-sustainable cities for the future from the root-level up. Joyce Laird talks to the CPI's Graham Hillier...

This article is taken from the May/June issue of Renewable Energy Focus magazine. To register to receive a digital copy click here.

THE CENTRE for Process Innovation (CPI) is a UK-based technology innovation centre and part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. “We use applied science and engineering combined with state-of-the-art facilities to help manufacturers and businesses develop, prove, prototype and scale up the next generation of products and processes.

That is our core,” explains Graham Hillier, Director of Strategies. He also notes that the whole concept of a completely self-sustainable city of the future has to start with the industry supporting it; industries that are completely self-sustainable. Without that, simply running a city on any renewable energy source can't be completely self-sustaining.

“The key to sustainability is harnessing our natural resources and making them work smarter and harder. With this in mind we have developed a vision for a city where waste streams from industry and agriculture will generate energy through anaerobic digestion and also be recycled and reused to create new and useful products; where buildings integrate photovoltaic (PV) cells and sensors into the actual building materials to improve efficiency; where the growth of energy crops such as algae enhance our carbon capture amongst other features,” he says.

According to Hillier, cities of the future will need to make greater use of their infrastructure to reduce resource consumption and waste production, while increasing the efficiency of the products and systems within it. They will use wastes as feedstock for energy production and product manufacturing. This will improve efficiency through reuse and recycling by relating processes into integrated closed loop systems based around energy, water and waste management. All aspects of community life will become increasingly efficient to reduce costs and emissions.

Start with industry

Natural resources are not finite and continue to seriously impact upon the global economy. “Indeed, resource efficiency affects every business and its associated supply chains in some way, shape or form. The rapid depletion of resources and scarcity of materials, coupled with an ever-present agenda to minimise industrial impacts upon the environment and develop a sustainable low carbon economy are challenges at the very core of manufacturing.

“Add to this the demands of a growing population – forecasts warn of one billion new consumers in cities by 2025 and an increase in consumption by $10 trillion – and the issue becomes ever more challenging.”

CPI addresses a multitude of industries. “The overall picture is not about any single process. It is about all processes and scaling them so they address each market. The technology areas: industrial biotechnology, printable electronics, smart chemistry, anaerobic digestion, thermal technologies and finally, sustainable engineering, link the processes together to get the overall sustainable effect.”

An oil refinery is a prime example. Within the petrochemical complex, there are a number of manufacturing plants linked together and the waste from one would be the feedstock for another. If it couldn't be passed on for further use, it would be burned to create electricity. “The idea is to link all the pieces and steps together. That is where the sustainable engineering comes in. This is possible in all industrial facilities and within all markets in different ways,” Hillier says.

“We have a group that develops thermal technologies – such as gasification and pyrolysis – where waste, bio feedstock or a combination of fossil, bio and waste is processed into a range of next generation industry process products,” he adds.

Closed loop

CPI recently completed a project for a client to develop a closed loop system. “Fuel of some type is always needed, which would be gasified to create syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen). Hydrogen can be the fuel, but it can also be used as a feedstock in chemical processes for making various gases, ammonia and so forth,” Hillier says.

“Carbon dioxide can be used to grow things, but you need to find a way of growing things very quickly and differently. It might be food or algae or other biomass feedstock,” he continues. “What is grown as food or feedstock can also feed back into a bio-refinery. A bio refinery can make most of the things that an oil refinery can make using biological feedstocks. Once everything has been extracted and used, the end waste can be processed for use as fertilizer and fed back into plant growing, and recycle the water drained from it.”

There are also gasification projects going at the centre, alongside algae and plant growing projects in the industry and biotechnology activity. “We've also got our bio refinery and a centre that is working on better methods of anaerobic digestion. Because all of these are room temperature biological processes, they are quite slow, which is a problem. They cover massive areas, but they don't move very fast.”

Integration is key

Hillier says that while these technologies on the industrial level are the groundwork, that is only the start of a self-sustainable city. The next step is looking at how everything would impact retail and transport. Monitoring, sensing, lighting and low energy consumption become quite important.

“You have to look at how to use things in a different way to get the most out of them and it starts from the bottom to the top, not the top down. How are things manufactured to begin with, not ‘are we using solar power on the rooftop?’ That is good, but if the chain of waste and pollution is going on from the initial level, it is only a bandage on a festering wound below.” The answer to total sustainability, he says, has to come from the first step in any process, and feed all the way through all the steps to actually work.

While many groups are working on one or more steps in the area of sustainable processes or renewable energy, they tend to be encapsulated only in their own process whatever that may be. Most do not think about other processes, other than they are competitive. It is very compartmentalised.

“To try to reach all areas, we have levels of interaction. Private companies come to us for projects and there are companies in the UK that work in collaborative R&D, where we do feasibility studies that prove their different stages of a project. We are nine years old with 60 million pounds of assets now so we are getting a track record. The UK also has what is called ‘the manufacturing landscape’ which is all about manufacturing competency, improved processes and overall sustainability,” Hillier says.

Vision for the future

Hillier says CPI's focus will continue to be on process innovation across all types of technologies, taking in anything that is processed; electronics, food, energy, biological. “When talking about cities it is about how do all the processes work, regardless of the industry. Plus, how does the city work? How do you move things around? How do you use and recycle energy efficiently? Energy is a fantastic hook, but it is about total recycling all areas,” he says.

“We help to bring more efficient products to markets and we help companies use more efficient processes. We work upstream. All processes must be in place first to lead to completely self-sustainable cities one day.”

He adds: “The challenge is how to replace the existing with new technology. This can't be done overnight. It is the regulators and how people react to it, so developing the technology is only a part of it. You can develop many types of technologies but it's always about how they will interact with each other.”

See also - Smart solar solutions – dynamic daylighting

About: Joyce Laird has an extensive background writing about the electronics industry; semiconductor development, R&D, wafer/foundry/IP and device integration into high density circuit designs.

Share this article

More services


This article is featured in:
Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Green building  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Solar electricity  •  Solar heating and cooling  •  Wind power