19 December 2017

Solving real world problems with businesses while getting a PhD was a winning combination for students graduating from the Centre for Global Eco-innovation

The award winning Centre for Global Eco-innovation (CGE), matches academic researchers with business people who have a problem they need to solve. This could involve a product, service or process they want to develop or improve, which will help cut carbon or reduce the use of resources.

The twelve students getting their doctorate in December worked on industry based PhDs researching a range of challenges including:

  • exploring the ecological impacts of a new nematode (pest) control agent
  • fine tuning a model for businesses to estimate their suppliers carbon emissions
  • increasing the pollutant removal efficiency of aerated constructed wetlands for industrial strength effluents
  • assessing the impact of small scale hydro on river ecology
  • intelligent communication management and control architecture for the smart grid’

Each student had both academic and industry supervisors. Many had already spent years in the workplace before starting their PhD and were attracted by the chance to keep working within industry.

“I probably wouldn’t have ended up doing a purely academic PhD, I wanted to work for a company so the research had an end application,” said Dr Andy Freeman, who spent four years working on effluent re-drainage and contaminated land remediation schemes before starting his PhD.

His PhD project, with Peak Associates, built on his experience, and looked at how to improve the pollutant removal efficiency of aerated constructed wetlands to deal with industrial strength wastewater. This PhD was based with the Manchester Airport Group looking at how they might use aerated constructed wetlands to manage storm water run-off contaminated with huge volumes of deicing fluid applied to planes and runways each winter. He’s now got a job as a project scientist and field support engineer with ARM Group Limited, a company that designs, constructs and monitors natural wastewater treatment solutions using the latest constructed wetland technology.

“The experience of doing the PhD was fantastic. Carrying out the research in partnership with Peak Associates and Manchester Airport gave me a good grounding around the theory and background design calculations which are key to any wastewater project but also the practical application of aerated constructed wetlands for treatment of industrial strength effluent. Working with the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation and experienced academics at Lancaster University helped improve my own skill set.”

Dr Robin Frost, who spent 25 working in the food industry, also wanted a PhD with real world applications. Through his work he had become interested in the sustainability of supply chains. So he was delighted to get a PhD project with Small World Consulting, working on a holistic model of companies’ carbon emissions, that includes the carbon emissions of a company’s suppliers.

“Often the actual direct impact in terms of oil and gas that companies burn is quite small, because they work hard at reducing it,” Robin explains. “But companies spend a lot of money with suppliers and as a result cause emissions.” 

The basis of Robin’s PhD was to work with BT, calculating the carbon footprint of the company’s supply chain over four years. As well as enabling Robin to improve the model using a real world case study, it enabled BT to embed supply chain carbon foot-printing into the company systems.

Robin now has a job as a statistician with the Scottish Government, but is continuing to work with Small World Consulting in his spare time, using the model on other organisations, most recently the Lake District National Park.

Dr Laura O’Keefe has a marine biology degree and spent two years as a field instructor and lab technician in a school. She started volunteering with a company called Green Tide Turbines, who then encouraged her to do a PhD with them through the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation.

Laura’s research assessed the impact of small hydropower installations on the ecology and physical conditions of rivers, to help the company develop more environmentally friendly turbines.

While she enjoyed the PhD and continued working with the company for six months after completing her research, she discovered that what she enjoyed most was being a bridge between the academic and business worlds.

“Academics are interested in the academic side of research and industry has its own aims so I saw my role partly as being a lynchpin between the two, making sure everyone was on the same page.”

Laura is now using these skills within the Centre for Global Eco-innovation, where she is working as an Innovation Fellow, helping graduate researchers with their carbon reporting and commercial impact of their research.

The graduates spoke about the benefits of having a cohort of PhD students all facing similar issues.

“First and foremost it is always nice to have colleagues going though similar processes at the same time, although each of us had different problems to solve.” said Robin. “We could learn from each other and see across disciplines how differences could be made for sustainability issues.”