Greening Big Science

by guest blogger Thomas Parker, Head of Energy Division, European Spallation Source ESS AB

Are Big Science facilities sustainable? For the most part, these facilities with the exception of CERN, go mostly unnoticed by the public, so few people ever question their sustainability. There are around 30 research infrastructure facilities in Europe and each consumes as much electricity as a small town. Worldwide, the emissions caused by powering research are probably comparable to those of Latvia. The energy challenges of research infrastructure facilities were the subject of a recent workshop arranged by CERN, ESS and the ERF.

Research infrastructure facilities are large-scale science facilities such as accelerators, reactors, telescopes or even wind tunnels. They can be comparable in cost to transport infrastructure, such as bridges or airports. By their very nature, most are staggeringly inefficient. Much of the inefficiency is inherent, because the purpose of the facility is to push the boundaries of technology and physics.

Because of their cost, the decisions to fund and build these facilities are made by governments. The job of government in considering investment in infrastructure is to weigh the costs of building and operation against the benefits, in this case in knowledge, innovations and growth. In that sense research infrastructure that is built has been deemed to be sustainable in a democratic process, as long as the facilities produce the expected output. This is therefore the focus of these facilities, as it should be.

But there is waste.

In my recent op-ed article in Nature (Dec 15, 2011) “Cutting science’s energy bill” I had the opportunity to argue that research infrastructure facilities must become more efficient, and that there are some easy ways to move in the right direction. The European Spallation Source to be built in Lund, Sweden is the latest research infrastructure development. The ESS is implementing an energy concept known as Responsible, Renewable, Recyclable and Reliable, which translates into energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, recycling of heat that is otherwise wasted and at the same time an operational stability that ensures that the facility is available for science.

Photo by Ryerson Clark

Excuse the pun, but it all boils down to hot water.

The key insight is that temperature is value. Here’s why (skip this if you are not an engineer): Boiling water can be converted to electricity with an efficiency of about one third. Hot water can also be converted to electricity, at lower efficiency and at greater expense. The efficiency falls to zero at a point that is given by the difference between the temperature of the available heat energy and the available cooling temperature (This follows from thermodynamics and the Carnot theorem). At a difference about 40 degrees, it is no longer possible to convert to electricity. However, a temperature difference of 10 degrees is sufficient for heating needs (end engineering warning).

Today, research infrastructure facilities spend money getting rid of heat that has value. This happens when heat energy of useful temperatures is diluted so that it costs money to get rid of it. Instead, temperature should be conserved so that the heat can be used. Additionally, heating systems for buildings on and around research infrastructure should be designed to be able to make use of low grade heat for the their heating needs. This is mostly a question of pipe dimensions and fairly easy, if done in time, but a bit trickier if the building is already up and running on an inferior system.

If research facilities can turn their cooling demand into a resource, then we all can benefit from the increased production of science and innovation.

Thomas Parker has been working with the energy concept “Responsible, Renewable and Recyclable” at the European Spallation Source since April 2008. Two years of this time Thomas spent at the Spallation Neutron Source at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Thomas has a background in nanotech, energy and environmental management.


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