Paving the way for self-sufficient buildings

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The roll-to-roll product with researchers outside the Active Buildings.

Buildings are energy-hungry: their construction and use accounts for around 39% of global carbon dioxide emissions; and in the UK they consume around 40% of all the energy produced. So, they present a significant challenge to meeting national and international Net Zero targets of reducing greenhouse emissions. But now, a multi-million-pound project based at Swansea University is paving the way for decarbonisation of heat and power in buildings - both in the UK and abroad.

The Sustainable Product Engineering Centre for Innovative Functional Industrial Coatings (SPECIFIC) project has developed the Active Building design principle, which combines renewable energy technologies in one intelligent system, integrated into the building structure. The buildings provide occupants with low carbon energy for heat, power and transport.

The principle is underpinned with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for research into a range of solar technologies that can capture energy from the sun and store it in the building until it is needed as heat or power.

"The overall goal of the project is to modify, improve and develop affordable solar technologies that could be manufactured at scale and re-used or recycled at the end of their life," says SPECIFIC's principal investigator Professor Dave Worsley.

Using £7 million in grants from EPSRC since 2011, the project research focuses on a number of areas including printed photovoltaics, novel energy capture technologies such as thermo-electrics, electrical storage, thermal storage, industrial coatings and building energy systems.

Examples of research impacts include a new roll-to-roll fabrication method for slot-die coated perovskite solar cells, which enables manufacturing at higher speed with more control and less material waste; and a thermochemical heat storage material that can store heat from the summer sun for use in winter.

Uniquely, the project’s work spans all scales from the lab research to demonstration at full-scale. SPECIFIC’s demonstrator buildings are used to test emerging technology in a real-world setting. "Our active buildings generate, store and release their own renewable energy," explains Worsley. "We have an active classroom, office, warehouse and homes, and they have all proved successful - the active classroom produced 1.5 times the energy it consumed in its first year of operation. They are an effective way of demonstrating the capabilities of the centre to industry and policy-makers."

With additional funding from Innovate UK and the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government, SPECIFIC's staff also use their expertise to support others to develop low carbon technologies and buildings. One such partnership with social housing developer Pobl Group applies the active buildings concept to a development in Neath, South Wales. Active Homes Neath was a pathfinder project for the region, where local authorities now have plans to develop a further 3,300 new homes and retrofit an additional 7,000 homes with low carbon technologies.

The impact of the project goes beyond the UK: with partner project SUNRISE, it is bringing together industry and universities in the UK and India to develop low-cost solar technologies for rural Indian communities.

"This has potential ramifications in terms of global democratisation of energy and supporting developing communities," says Worsley. "It demonstrates that SPECIFIC has delivered wide-ranging yet very tangible impacts that span research advances, economic and industrial growth, skills development and the UK's international standing in sustainable energy. It shows how buildings can be designed differently, and at scale, to reduce carbon emissions and support change for the next generation."